One of the most disheartening experiences as a critic is when you adore and praise a movie that nobody else likes. In your defense, you start to haul out words like "misunderstood" or "underrated," or -- in extreme cases -- claiming that everyone else on the planet didn't "get it." Almost as bad is when some stupid movie that you absolutely hated becomes a giant hit, often supported by the unqualified praise of all the other critics.
The thing is, I can cook up a perfectly valid reason for every one of my favorite movies that fail as well as for all those bad movies that become huge. It's useless, of course. Not only does this not change a thing, but also it assumes that a giant audience filled with thousands of people has one, easily defined psyche. But just for fun, let me explain a few recent hits and misses.
I'd like to start with William Friedkin's Bug (331 screens), which is probably my favorite American film so far this year. Friedkin was once one of the most celebrated of the 1970s Hollywood Mavericks, winning an Oscar for The French Connection (1971) and making the box office bonanza The Exorcist (1973). But whether it was hubris or just plain bad luck, Friedkin was unable to sustain the kind of career that, say, Spielberg or Altman had. The general consensus today is that he's a burnout, or a has-been. But a small critical corner exists that wishes to turn Friedkin into an auteur.
He definitely has a personal touch, springing from his days as a documentary filmmaker. Each of his films, especially The French Connection, Rules of Engagement (2000) and The Hunted (2003) are meticulously researched and come with an insider understanding of process and method. Oddly, that doesn't apply to Bug, which is all about paranoia and conspiracy, none of which can be proved or disproved. The film has a lot of ideas, terms and information, but all of it is hearsay and innuendo.
And so, that leaves critics with nothing to connect Bug with except The Exorcist (which itself was scrupulously researched and rooted in reality), even though the two films have little to do with one another. And indeed, distributor Lionsgate deliberately implied in their advertising that Bug would be a creepfest like The Exorcist, luring teenagers out to opening weekend with the promise of thrills and chills. Instead, they got a harrowing, emotionally rending story that leaves you wrung out. Not a great time at the movies, but certainly a rewarding one for any open-minded viewer.
Moving on, Tsai Ming-liang's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (1 screen) has thus far not exactly lit the art houses on fire, and it's simply because the film doesn't have a plot that's easy to follow. Star Lee Kang-sheng appears in two roles with no explanation, and even the most intelligent audience members were left scratching their heads. Still, the film comes with its share of striking, memorable and even sadly beautiful images.
Hal Hartley's Fay Grim (1 screen) has likewise baffled people with its complex, convoluted plot about international intrigue and espionage. It's perhaps even more complicated if you were a fan of the film's predecessor, Henry Fool (1998), which I was not. But as for Fay Grim, which I liked, I got the distinct impression that the entire thing was one colossal, deadpan joke. Yet I saw a few reviewers complain that the movie took itself too seriously. Another problem with Fay Grim is that it tried that ridiculous concept in which they release the movie and the DVD in the same week. I've never understood that idea, and it didn't seem to work the first few times around, so why bother? (Can anyone explain this to me?)
Now, the other side of the coin: how to explain the colossal success behind Zach Snyder's 300 (303 screens, and raking in over $200 million in 14 weeks)? I will concede that it looks great and moves well. The digital polish seamlessly melds the visual effects with the human characters, and the action sequences are actually smooth and fluid, as opposed to the usual junky, hand-held, shaky-cam that most movies employ. Some scenes even evoke Frank Miller's art from the comic books. But at the same time, this movie is just stupid. The dialogue sounds like stuff that might emanate from a playground full of third-graders, and there's an odd mix of right-wing swagger and naked homoeroticism that the movie doesn't even seem aware of. (Some have correctly called it "war porn.")
Here's why it has been so successful. Over the past few years, there have been at least a dozen war movies and documentaries, each with a kind of somber, serious attitude, each complaining about the stupidity and futility of war, but also praising the courage of those who wage it. These movies strike me as timid, wanting to please everybody without putting anything on the line. At the same time, they offer no easy answers as to why we fight. If nothing else, 300 does provide easy answers. It gives us a clear heroic underdog, and a clearly evil villain.
Despite all this, I have to wonder: in an age where each new movie release is promoted, dismantled and reviewed to the point of over-saturation, how can any of them still be misunderstood?