When completing my recent review for Glass I glanced at its Rotten Tomatoes page. I’d enjoyed the movie, but acknowledged it had some pacing flaws. I also knew it hadn’t received great reviews. So I went to Rotten Tomatoes expecting a Critics’ Approval score somewhere in the 60% range. What number did I actually see?: 37%.
37% –that’s not merely a disappointing grade: that’s well into F territory. Now in fairness, Rotten Tomatoes percentages are simply based on counts of positive and negative reviews: a film that gets all Cs might thus get an F score (and a film that get’s all B-minuses an A+). Still, given its creativity and positive qualities it surprised me that Glass could fall so low on the Tomato Meter.
It is not Glass, however, that drove my recent frustration with critics. That honor falls to a movie called Serenity (Serenity gets a 21% Rotten Tomatoes score from critics). When I saw Serenity I did not particularly want to review it. Fishing is a major motif in the film, and I wish filmmakers didn’t regularly bombard us with casual images of this violent activity.
Still, I found it an overall well executed piece of filmmaking. Serenity is the story of fishing-boat captain Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) whose stubborn obsession with catching a single Tuna (who he names “Justice”) undermines his business prospects and adds further scruff to his already prickly persona. My feelings about the fish motif aside, this is a good literary starting point: one that invokes Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea. The film then follows Dill’s attempts to understand why he can’t relate to the townsfolk, as well as his relationship with his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathway). Midway through, the film’s tone is changed as it is overtaken by a supernatural aura.
Between its charismatic personas, provocatively short and mysterious character interactions and rainbow-pallet visuals, Serenity left me fully engaged. As a film reviewer I try to be insightful, but my ultimate task in recommending films is to tell you if I enjoyed what I saw. The overall sense of enjoyment I derived from seeing Serenity was unmistakable.
Do I have such an unusual mindset that I experience film fundamentally differently from the vast majority of critics? Possibly, but I have a hard time believing that’s true. Therefore I can’t but speculate that many professional critics have lost their way: that some have become so obsessed with their personal systems for categorizing and evaluating films that they lose sight of whether on an instinctual level they enjoy what they saw.
In his critique in The New Yorker, Richard Brody bemoans the plethora of clichés in Serenity. Brody is not wrong to notice this trait, but to me this kind of criticism seems to be derived from a pre-conceived philosophy of criticism (ie denouncing clichéd writing) rather than from direct engagement with the film at hand. Yes, the characters surrounding Dill, particularly Karen’s violently misogynistic husband Frank (Jason Clarke) are flat, but when one realizes the film’s twist, this flatness makes perfect sense. If anything, what’s questionable is the inclusion of one non-flat character in addition to Dill: his first-mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou).*
Brody is of course not the only writer to have written a damning review of Serenity, and in his defence, he at least maintains a measure of eloquence. Robert Ebert reviewer Christy Lemire writes “Serenity” is terrible and insane, and will surely end up being one of the worst films of 2019.” The more interesting problem with Lemire’s critique comes out in one of her better written lines, however. Lemire accuses writer/director Steven Knight of orchestrating a plot twist in which “he partially pulls the rug out from underneath us about halfway through, then yanks the whole thing out by the end, then waves the rug around in the air as if to joyfully shout: “Ha! This is the rug you were standing on! See? It’s not underneath you anymore!” Lemire is right in this observation, but like Brody she seems so preoccupied with the existence of what in theory sounds like a flaw, that it makes me wonder whether she was really attuned to the film she was watching. Yes the movie’s twist is revealed early on, and there is the odd-line in the script that feels repetitive as a result, but this revelation doesn’t harm the film’s overall feel. The twist’s early revelation doesn’t immediately save Baker Dill from his deep disorientation and doubt, allowing the film to remain engaging for its whole run time.
With or without its twist, Serenity is a film that holds onto a suspenseful, mysterious aura. It’s also a thematically interesting piece, though Richard Brody, with his focus on the overt toxic-masculinity of Frank doesn’t seem to appreciate that. The film is not really about Frank’s over the top flaws. Rather it’s about Baker, who in his Hemingway-esque pursuit of Justice, displays a subtler form of toxic masculinity: one that he is forced to examine as he grasps to preserve a relationship with his far-away son. The masculinity of the son is in turn a relevant, if somewhat mysterious theme.
My problem with critics is not limited to their context-free obsession with their pet issues. I’m also put off by their general comfort with negativity. Observer reviewer Rex Reed gave the film 0/4. Again, it baffles me how often critics feel comfortable giving such low scores. In many school systems 49% is a failing grade, and grades well above 49 still indicate deep concern on a teacher’s part about a students progress.
In Reed’s case, it can at least be said that he commits to his cartoonishly low grade writing: “The result is a sub-mental waste of time and Diane Lane. The early months of every year are always devoted to the trash Hollywood couldn’t dump in the plethora of Oscar contenders the year before. One expects junk in January. It’s a rule. But it is rare to pull any junk movie from the gutter as spectacularly stupid as Serenity.” Let me say it again. I enjoyed Serenity. I enjoyed it despite wishing one of its key themes (fishing) wasn’t there. And I enjoyed it despite its starting at 11:00 at night: making it highly probable that I would fall asleep in the theatre. Can I believe you liked this film less than me, Rex Reed? Of course. Can I believe that what for me was an 8-or-9 out of 10 experience was for you a zero? Not really, unless I factor in that the very culture of film criticism may incentivize condescension and hyperbolic negativity.
Passionate as this article is, I put it forward modestly. I don’t claim to have the film expertise of many professional critics. Nonetheless, when one’s perception of reality clashes so fundamentally with that of a whole industry, it may be worth questioning whether the industry has systematic problems. I can’t read minds and can’t tell you what individual critics are thinking. If you are a critic, however, I implore that you maintain (what I will assume is your current) commitment to reviewing films sincerely and reserving excessive criticism for when such harshness is actually morally justified.
*If you want to see my (inevitably spoiler-implying) theory as to why Duke is not a flat character see bellow:
DUKE IS THE EQUIVALENT OF THIS CHARACTER