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Oscar-Winner In a Better World's Box Office Slashed by Harsh Reviews UPDATED

by Anne Thompson
April 4, 2011 5:15 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

Since when is winning an Oscar a bad thing? In his disparaging NYT review of In a Better World, A.O. Scott uses its recent foreign Oscar win as a warning sign:

“In a Better World,” directed by the Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier and written by Anders Thomas Jensen, is an elegant, somber scourge for the guilty conscience of the affluent, liberal West. Or, to put it another way, “In a Better World” is the winner of the 2011 Academy Award for best foreign language film...Everything about In a Better World feels just a little too easy: a better movie might have let in more of the messiness of the world as it is. This one falls into cheap manipulation, winding up the audience with foreboding music and the spectacle of blond children in peril.

Scott wasn't the only critic to go after Bier's family drama, which explores male power relationships as a doctor (Mikael Persbrandt) deals with the break-up of his family in Denmark, where his son is bullied, and travels to an African refugee camp as a doctor without borders. David Edelstein's review in New York is headlined: "The Dullness of Being Earnest: In a Better World is socially worthy—and utterly joyless." Is this yet another case of male film critics failing to see the merits of a woman director's intimate, subtle, intuitive filmmaking? Bier is one of the finest directors working today, consistently turning out excellent work, from Open Hearts and Brothers (which was remade by Hollywood) to After the Wedding, also nominated for an Oscar.

Critics have an undue impact on foreign films (especially serious dramas such as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful), which remain a tough sell for American moviegoers--unless Lars von Trier scandalizes viewers with Anti-Christ or Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu star in an entertaining French comedy of manners like Music Box's well-reviewed Potiche, which is shaping up as a small hit. Ironically, the publicity surrounding French drama Of Gods and Men not landing an Oscar nomination boosted its box office fortunes--with strong reviews it is doing solid business.

Harsh reviews kept audiences away in droves from In a Better World, which scored a disastrous $35,000 in four top-flight theaters, including L.A.'s the Arclight, faring even worse than last year's downbeat Japanese Oscar-winner Departures. This raises the issue of whether foreign film distributors aren't better off opening their Oscar candidates earlier, during the nomination window, when awards interest is high, rather than later, when an Oscar win seems to bring no significant bump at all.

UPDATE: In this case, Sony Pictures Classics knew from an early Cannes market screening that certain critics despised the movie and thus the distrib was protecting it from assault by holding back until after the awards season yielded, happily, Golden Globe and Oscar wins. Then they took Bier on a promo tour to fests in Miami and Austin, among others, which will pay off with media interviews as the movie broadens around the country.

Thankfully, In a Better World had ardent supporters as well, including EW's Lisa Scharzbaum, who praises Bier's "talent for weaving together accessible domestic melodrama and issues of ethical awareness of the world beyond our doorstep" and the LAT's Ken Turan:

The Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier has a potent gift for turning abstract, moral questions like these into edge-of-your-seat compelling dramas that examine, with devastating effect, the complex web of feelings that make us who we are. With "In A Better World," which deservedly won this year's best foreign language Oscar, she has outdone even herself.

Here's TOH's interview with Bier.


  • Jan Lisa Huttner | April 7, 2011 2:09 AMReply

    "Is this yet another case of male film critics failing to see the merits of a woman director’s intimate, subtle, intuitive filmmaking?" Apparently, yes. I saw it yesterday @ a critics screening in Chgo & I thought it was brilliant. Then I came home & read Anthony Lane's review in the New Yorker & couldn't believe my eyes.

  • Anonymous 2 | April 7, 2011 2:00 AMReply

    Foreign Films, particularly those that win Oscars, are released until after their win because there's more air in the indie place market during the spring. It's very cluttered and competitive in the film, and only if you have something that's stylistic and broad enough to compete, i.e. Amelie and Life is Beautiful, will it unspool during the Sept.-December frame. Had "In a Better World" been released during that period, it could have lost the Oscar, and been completely buried at the B.O.

  • Kevin M | April 7, 2011 1:48 AMReply

    There's another mistake in this article: Departures is a comedic tearjerker, not downbeat.

  • DavidC | April 6, 2011 4:48 AMReply

    Ella Taylor. LA Weekly.

  • Bob Westal | April 6, 2011 1:37 AMReply

    Mary --

    I thought about that just after I wrote it and you might well be right, but I really wonder if that's pre-web 20th century thinking. I'm not an expert on newspaper readership vs. web readership and how that shakes out from city to city, but I really wonder if critics like Scott and Edelstein are that much more influential in NYC than they here in L.A.

    My hunch is that, here in L.A., Kenneth Turan and Karina Longworth are only slightly more influential than they are elsewhere. All of these critics are, of course, more influential than other because they write for major publications. Now, certain other local critics might be more influential here because they appear on local radio or TV programs, though I don't know that Scott or Edelstein do that.

  • Anonymous | April 5, 2011 6:19 AMReply

    Obviously these reviewers didn't see the OTHER Oscar nominated foreign films. This one was a HUNDRED times better than any of the others. I'm pretty sure the vote wasn't even close. So yes, it is a typical male critic "dogpile on the woman film director." She doesn't deserve this. The film was intelligent and well-crafted and consistent throughout, unlike the other entries which were disjointed, discombobulated, derivative or outright unqualified.

  • mary | April 5, 2011 5:34 AMReply

    The problem is that "In a Better World" get bad reviews from key critics in New York .

    A review in NY Times is especially influential for the box office potential of foreign-language film; even if a distributor do everything right, A review in NY Times can still kill the film at box office.
    It doesn't help that "In a Better World" also get bad reviews from other key critics in New York. Wany New York moviegoers would stay away from the film after reading those rewiews. (In the US, New York is a key market for foreign-language films)

    If Sony Pictures Classics had known that "In a Better World" would get bad reviews in New York, they would no open this film in New York at the opening weekend... just like what Strand Releasing did with "Wild Reeds"

  • Bob Westal | April 4, 2011 12:47 PMReply

    Well, taking a look over at Rotten Tomatoes it's at 80% among top critics and over at Metacritic it's at a "generally favorable" 63%. I would not call that bad even if a couple of well known, extra-witty critics took a strong dislike to it. This is hardly the first Oscar winner to experience a strong backlash from a minority of critics.

    Personally, I'm thinking it's the premise and the whole "see it because it's good for you" feeling around it that's keeping people away. It's certainly why I don't have a huge amount of interest in seeing it, though I'm sure there's a 50/50 chance whether I'd like it or agree with Scott and Edelstein.

  • Jose Leal | April 4, 2011 8:45 AMReply

    There is a mistake in this article. Last year's Oscar winner was The Secret in their eyes, not Departures

  • Sophia Savage | April 4, 2011 8:30 AMReply

    It's no coincidence that this film, which is largely about male identity and ego, is being met with such harsh criticism from male critics. Are average movie-going men ready and willing to look at their own egos and question how masculine identities are formed in our culture? I doubt it.

    There are so many simple, heartbreaking and beautiful moments in this film. Audiences are so desensitized by in-your-face and over-the-top displays of machismo, comic book violence and female objectification that when a film comes along that actually questions and considers masculinity, violence, power and ego - as well as male-female dynamics - we declare it melodramatic, joyless, manipulative, and so on. It's ridiculous to call this film manipulative - if anything, it's going against the usual pattern of films telling us how men and women should look and act (THAT is manipulative, we're just so used to it being force fed to us that we've stopped caring or questioning it). And to use the word 'melodramatic' in a derogatory way also reeks of misunderstanding. People just aren't ready to burst their delusional-blockbuster-bubbles where they can pretend everything's just dandy. The reality is, IN A BETTER WORLD forces us to look at ourselves, our identities, our habit pretending we are immune to the rest of the world's problems while ignoring the problems we have within our own families and nations. It's easier to dismiss a film rather than allow it to open and change our perspectives.

    Here's more on director Susanne Bier's film from the Golden Globes Foreign Language nominees panel. She discusses human nature, global filmmaking and the real meaning of 'melodrama' along with I AM LOVE director Luca Guadagnino and BIUTIFUL's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

    See the film, consider the film and then participate in the more important dialogue that this film should be creating.

  • Tom Brueggemann | April 4, 2011 6:38 AMReply

    Thanks Anne for correcting the impression elsewhere (Variety, Leonard Klady) that these were OK or better grosses.

    One small caveat - to the extent that reviews matter in LA, the LA Times (Betsy Sharkey) gave the film a strong review, and it fared no better here than in LA.

    That said, the theatres in which the film played, particularly in NY, with the ad campaign and the Oscar, should have done better even when some of the reviews were mixed. My take is that in the absence of otherwise compelling draws though that the FL Oscar at this part has indeed become a sign of caveat emptor.

  • Stewart | April 4, 2011 5:50 AMReply

    It's unfortunate this blog doesn't go beyond he-said-she-said, and takes one side, using the shield of victimhood. The film and subject needs serious exploration.

  • Star Bomb | April 4, 2011 5:43 AMReply

    Bier's films ARE kinda boring and often Bloodless.

    I AM LOVE deserved better.

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