I hit a late night screening of Heckler here at AFI Dallas last night. The film is a documentary by Michael Addis (Poor White Trash) about comedian and actor Jamie Kennedy (Son of the Mask, Malibu's Most Wanted). The film starts out talking about people who heckle comedians at live comedy shows, before diverging into an exploration of various critics who have slammed Kennedy's films. Kennedy talks to a few critics about their reviews, reading their eviscerations of his work out loud to them and gauging their reactions both to hearing their own words and seeing the effect their writing has on him as a person.
I'll have a full review of the film up shortly (it was actually very funny and insightful, for the most part), but I want to talk a bit about the film here. One of the points raised in both the film and in the post-show Q&A, ran jointly by Addis and Film Threat's Mark Bell (pictured, above), who got into a bit of a heated kerfuffle with Addis at the Q&A for the film's AFI Los Angeles screening, was whether critics should hold comedies to the same standard as more highbrow films. Kennedy, dialed into the Q&A over Addis's cell phone, noted that Bell had called Malibu's Most Wanted an "easy target," and wondered why Bell and other critics hold comedies to a different standard than a film like, say, There Will be Blood.
A young (and apparently fairly drunk) guy in the Q&A crowd heckled Bell, demanding to know who the hell Bell is to tell anyone whether a film is good or not, and accusing him of essentially saying that people who like Malibu's Most Wanted are stupid. I got into a discussion with Addis after the Q&A about why critics tend to review comedies like Kennedy's poorly. My own issue with comedies is not with the genre, per se -- it's the point that, as was noted a couple of times in the film, there's this perception that comedies, because they're "just supposed to make people laugh," should therefore be immune to criticism.
Personally, I have the same issue with a lot of popcorn comedies that I do with much of what's on television: they play to the lowest common denominator, and I think it's the filmmakers who make them -- not the critics who critique them -- who think that audiences (particular in the 13-25 age range) are vastly stupid. Film as a cultural medium has the power to influence our culture and society overall, just as television and music does, and I don't think a film should get a free pass for lacking decent writing, character development, cinematography, acting, editing and direction, because it's "just a comedy." Why should it? To me, that's a far greater insult to the audiences than anything any critic could write about a film like Malibu's Most Wanted.
I've had discusssions with other critics on this issue, whether the advent of sites like YouTube, and the popularity of reality television shows and inane sitcoms, is creating a culture where people are willing to accept less as more, to accept crude humor in the place of any kind of standard of filmmaking. I'm not arguing that every movie made has to aspire to be intellectual or high art, but have we really reached a place in society where fart, dick and boob jokes, or groovy CGI, have come to be accepted as the most that the younger generation expects for their $10 movie ticket?
I don't hate comedies; I just don't like comedies that assume a target market with the attention span of a hyperactive 12-year-old boy as the bar to aim for. Comedy can be an art form in and of itself, and in general, I think it's much harder to make a good comedy that makes people laugh than a film that tugs on the heartstrings. But comedic films can also embody the spirit of solid filmmaking -- I loved Thank You for Smoking and Juno (say what you will about the dialog, it was funny without being crass), I still enjoy watching Ghostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop, and Judd Apatow and even Will Ferrell have been hitting their target market by making very funny films that also tell good stories with interesting characters.
What I do take issue with is filmmakers and actors who churn out spectactulary crappy films and then act shocked that critics pan them. If you're going to make movies that aim for the low water mark, don't be surprised that the people who review films for a living call you on their flaws. That's not to say that I think reviewing a bad film gives a critic a free pass to get personal and slam the filmmaker or actor as a person, though, and to be perfectly fair to Kennedy, some of the reviews of his films that he read did cross that line. No matter how terrible a movie is, I don't believe it's fair play to attack someone on a personal level.
David Grumbine of Giant magazine, interviewed for the film, took a sickening sort of glee in having an outlet where he can say horrible things about Kennedy as a person, and practically gloated in Kennedy's pain at the things he'd said. That level of vehement loathing, of being negative just for the sake of being hurtful, turns my stomach; Grumbine is akin to a playground bully, relishing the pain he causes, and seeming to derive great pleasure in drawing emotional blood from his victim. Frankly, that senseless, insensitive, attacking kind of writing, whether in internet or print, is just as indicative of a cultural decline as the worst film coming out of any studio in Hollywood. While I don't think comedies should get a free pass just because they're comedies, I don't sanction that kind of nonsense, any more than I sanction the gossip sites like Perez Hilton and TMZ who make personal attacks on celebrities and then have the gall to call it "reporting," as Perez does in the film.
Comedy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, but it's the job of a critic to tell you what he or she thinks about the film and why, and thereby give the people who care to read that review a barometer of whether they might also like the film (or not). Nobody forces anyone to read Mark Bell's reviews, or reviews we have here on Cinematical; they're here for those readers who do want them, and if you don't care to read them, well, don't. Or read them, and then chime in with your own opinions on why you think a review is on the mark or not.
Do you think that comedies should be held to a different standard than other films, that critics are generally out of touch with what audiences expect from a comedy, and that they shouldn't even be critiqued at all? Or should Hollywood stop assuming audiences want comedies that spoon-feed laughs without regard for the art of filmmaking, and make better movies that both critics and audiences will like? Discuss away -- this isn't just our space to tell you what we think, it's yours to give us your thoughts as well.
*My Cinematical colleague Scott Weinberg's review of Stricken is among those Kennedy reads aloud in the film. See this piece over on my colleague Scott's personal blog, Adventures in Moviewatching, for his response.