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Should "A Thousand Words" Get the "Margaret" Treatment?

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Criticwire March 8, 2012 at 2:33PM

Development hell is a very real (and very hot) place. From time to time, a movie will garner a theatrical release long after the cameras stopped rolling and the picture has been locked. A delayed release doesn't always invite discrimination against quality, but does an audience need to know about it either way?
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With Matt busy for the next few days at the SXSW Film Festival, Criticwire assistant editor Steve Greene is temporarily taking on the reigns of the Criticwire blog.

Eddie Murphy in "A Thousand Words."
Paramount Pictures Eddie Murphy in "A Thousand Words."

Development hell is a very real (and very hot) place. From time to time, a movie will garner a theatrical release long after the cameras stopped rolling and the picture has been locked. A delayed release doesn't always invite discrimination against quality, but does an audience need to know about it either way?

In the LA Times today, Steven Zeitchik and Ben Fritz track the new Eddie Murphy film “A Thousand Words” through its various planned release dates and failed attempts to be previously shown in theaters. The article is not a review of the film, but the fact that production began four years ago is one that some critics have included in their reviews, with varying degrees of emphasis.

Among the early returns, Roger Ebert, the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips and the Miami Herald’s Rene Rodriguez have all made mention of the 2008 production start date. None of them use the movie's age as an explicit condemnation of its worth, but they do imply that if the movie had been released on time, by now we would have forgotten about it.

With indies, it’s not uncommon for multiple years to pass between a festival debut and a limited theatrical run. A mention of how the film played on the festival circuit might be helpful to include, but the fact that it played at Toronto in 2009 instead of playing at Toronto in 2010 doesn’t.

Some of these issues were broached last year when the controversy surrounding the Kenneth Lonergan film “Margaret” reflected many different critical anxieties. Keith Phipps began his review for The AV Club by explicitly stating “It’s impossible to talk about some films, like ‘Margaret,’ without talking about the stories behind them.” There was the inescapable element of a known actress, Anna Paquin, who was visibly younger in the film. Also, in 2005, when “Margaret” was in production, the post-9/11 New York underpinnings seemed to be a preservation of current feelings, not a decade-past retrospective that its future designation of “Margaret (Lonergan, 2011)” might indicate. The difference between a movie being “of its time” and trying to recapture a bygone feeling is a relevant distinction to draw when evaluating its effectiveness.

In the trailer for “A Thousand Words,” Eddie Murphy doesn’t look a day older than he was in “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,” and the story of a man who must use silence to learn how to respect others seems (for lack of a better word) timeless. While it’s a bit unfair to compare these two very different films, the same problems that made a discussion of the timetable for “Margaret” relevant don’t seem to be present here.

“A Thousand Words” will likely not rise to the level of major cultural scrutiny, but that's an assumption based on early critical returns, not distribution woes. However, 20 years from now, when "A Thousand Words" pops up on Cinemax (or whatever form of entertainment our computer overlords have deemed worthy for the human race), it will be far more natural for the audience to respond to the film itself rather than the length of time it took to get released. So why bring it up now?

What do you think? Should a movie's age influence the way critics perceive it?

This article is related to: From the Wire, Margaret


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