My Picks for the Most Overrated and Underrated Movies of 2011
I blame my old co-worker Jeff for April and I not seeing many theatrical movies in 2011. He was the one who turned us on to the long-form TV shows that have started popping up in recent years. (That he also persuaded us to switch to a plant-based diet -- the subject of his blog -- is a story for another article.)
Why go to the trouble of driving out to a theatre -- or even walking the 10 minutes down the block for us -- and paying money for a two hour film when we had three discs' worth of top shelf, entertainment crack like The Wire or Battlestar Galactica or Dexter right at home? A plot starting and wrapping up in 2 hours was boring. We were hooked on narratives that took multiple seasons to develop characters and plot arcs.
And once we got a new Blu Ray player with Netflix streaming built in, it was even worse: over a hundred commercial-free episodes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad available on command. Meanwhile, the unwatched episodes of HBO shows like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire just kept piling up on the DVR.
So of the top 30-grossing films of the year, April and I only made it out to see six of them in theatres -- Harry Potter Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Help, X-Men: First Class, and Horrible Bosses. Now check the Tomato Meter critics average of any of those movies and personally I'd say each is about right. The one we liked least -- Horrible Bosses -- is a 69% which I'd equate to a C, the grade the film would earn if I was still a film critic. (It just wasn't that laugh-out-loud funny or memorable. In the Age of Apatow it falls short but still maintains a handful of redeeming features.) The Help is one that my wife April adored but I found merely pleasant and watchable. Rotten Tomatoes says it's a 76% -- about a low B or B- perhaps which also makes sense. Harry Potter was both the year's highest grossing film and one of it's highest critical successes -- a 96% fresh rating, and definitely an A in my estimation. (April would probably argue for an A+.)
The past few weeks via Netflix we've started catching up on some of the "big" movies from 2011 which did not inspire us to abandon the couch. We watched two more of the top 30 box office hits from this year. The big surprise is that so far they're breaking the pattern and decisively not meeting the critical and cultural consensus. A film we anticipated would be a disaster actually wasn't that bad and a movie we eagerly wanted to see was a let down.
We'll start with the good news first. My pick for most underrated film of 2011.
Most Underrated: Green Lantern
Green Lantern clocked in at 23rd place for the year with $116 million at the box office -- not exactly a success considering its production budget of $200 million. As much as critics want to whine that they are unable to influence a film's box office, what other explanation can there be for Green Lantern's poor performance? The day the film was to open I pulled up Rotten Tomatoes and my heart sank: only 27% of critics gave it a positive review. A lousy film experience was all but guaranteed -- we decided to just wait until Blu-Ray.
The word on Green Lantern was out early: this was not going to be a "meaningful" superhero film ala Iron Man, Dark Knight, Watchmen or the best X-Men movies. No, Green Lantern by critics' consensus was a colorful, special effects extravaganza but failed to reach the heights of what was expected from the dramatic superhero fare of today. It was more akin to the disastrous Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider and Daredevil superhero mediocrities of the last decade. It was just a brainless summer blockbuster.
And it is. The dialogue and characters are only a few degrees less wooden than George Lucas' most embarrassing sequences from the prequel trilogy. There's no political allegory or deep sentiment. It's just a straightforward, earnest superhero narrative seemingly filled with more digital effects than live actors. Green Lantern seems more influenced by X-Box and Playstation than Shakespeare and Sophocles. And that's fine.
Life in a substance vacuum might not work well with most comic properties but it seems to with Green Lantern. Here's a guess why: Green Lantern has never been one of the "A-list" heroes because his premise does not allow him to be. We were never going to get a Green Lantern film with the depth of Dark Knight or Watchmen. Hal Jordan is not Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Tony Stark, or Bruce Wayne. He's not a tortured soul isolated by power or scarred by tragedy. The Green Lantern Corps is just an intergalactic police force. He's Earth's beat cop, an empty shell with a fun toy. Reading a Green Lantern comic or seeing the character in the cartoon or now played by Ryan Reynolds the feeling inspired is the same: "Oh how I wish I had a magical green power ring and could do cool things like that!" That's all that's really there with Green Lantern. So that the film delivers it well with fun special effects and exciting, video game-style action scenes should be a cause for praise, not derision that we're not experiencing an Oscar-worthy performance.
While no one expects Green Lantern to come up on January 24 when Jennifer Lawrence reveals the Academy Award nominations for 2012, unfortunately my choice for most overrated movie of the year is already generating some best screenplay buzz (further evidence of the critical establishment's loyalty to the politically correct orthodoxy?) ...
Most Overrated: Bridesmaids
April and I had plenty of opportunities to see Bridesmaids. Living in LA we somehow stumbled onto an email list for free advance screenings every week. Several invites came for Bridesmaids in the months before it opened and each time we kind of sort of wanted to go but ended up spending the evening with Don Draper instead. When the film finally opened and scored 90% on Rotten Tomatoes we started kicking ourselves. (Jon Hamm was even in it in a very Draper-esque role!) Yet somehow our friends insisting it was funnier than Superbad failed to propel us to walk 10 minutes down the block.
Now it turns out that our laziness -- a kind of entertainment sixth sense? -- was correct. The culture and our peers had promised a female version of The Hangover -- gross-out humor and drunken debauchery except now it's the women's turn to show that yes, testicles were not required for actors to humiliate themselves in self-destructive spectacles for our comedic enjoyment.
But while Hangover, Superbad, and others in this genre of R-rated gross-out comedy require many elements for success there is a glue that holds them all together: the strength of the characters and their relationships. Say what you will about the judgment of the protagonists in Hangover, they're all at least likable, decent guys trying to be friends to one another. There's a sense of camaraderie that viewers can lose themselves in, imagining that they too are one of the guys, and recalling their own wild parties from youth.
But Bridesmaids is just Phyllis Chesler's Woman's Inhumanity to Woman reenacted by Saturday Night Live actresses.
When April and I finished Bridesmaids I thought that my problem with it was primarily technical. Just that the characters were not developed enough and the jokes inadequate. The sequences between Kristen Wiig and her police officer love interest were refreshing but seemed like they belonged in another movie. The dialogue didn't have the smart crackle of Knocked Up, 40-Year-Old Virgin, or Funny People. There were a few chuckles and clever exchanges but no catch phrases I'd ever reference in public. Still, it wasn't boring or unpleasant -- I'd at least give it a C+.
Having thought more on the themes and characters of the film, though, the film's genuine problems come into greater, distressing clarity: the terrible ideas it puts forward about both friendship and marriage. Here's a question for those who have seen -- and especially those who like -- Bridesmaids: are any of the characters friends? The Bridesmaids defender might answer, "Well, they might not be very good friends much of the time but they're trying and certainly by the end of the movie they're being better friends."
****WARNING SPOILERS FOLLOW****
Wrong. Rule number one of being a friend: you do not facilitate and encourage self-destruction. If you are someone's friend then the first time you meet their fiance should not be after they're engaged. Friends watch very carefully when someone they care about -- man or woman -- is in a relationship. And real friends are honest with each other when they're involved with an evil man or vampiric woman. As a friend it is your duty to judge the ethical, moral, and competency level of your friends' potential mates so they do not end up broken and victimized. You do not stand by while your friend marries someone who will ruin his or her life.
But that's what the women in Bridesmaids do. Notice how the Bride Lillian (Maya Rudolph) has a husband-to-be Doug who is not an active character in the film at all? Recall how his own sister Melissa (Megan McCarthy), describes him as an "asshole" in a discussion. And what does it say about Doug that his mentor's wife, the film's evil, "too perfect" antagonist rich girl Helen (Rose Byrne) is a lonely, deeply unhappy, abandoned woman? You know a man's character by the company he keeps. (And also observe Bridesmaids' subtle Marxism of the protagonist being a recently bankrupt proletariat and the antagonist a bourgeoisie lady who did nothing to earn her wealth but marry strategically.)
Lillian prepares herself for a life married to a narcissistic, workaholic man who will probably cheat on her. And her supposed friends are too busy obsessing over their own self-doubts and meaningless, junior high social life pecking order contests to notice.
And observe the film's other cynical caricatures of marriage, each foreshadowing the doom awaiting Lillian: there's Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey in a riff on her Reno 911 "cougar" persona) who complains of her three disgusting teenage boys and their father who ignores her sexual needs. The film juxtaposes her with a younger vision of marital apocalypse, Becca played by Ellie Kemper is the dorky Christian Gen-Y newlywed of the bunch, a virgin on her wedding night now married to an uber-nerd who we later learn is also incompetent and bizarre in bed. (The writers' inter-generational jab of her pathetic character is clear: "These optimistic millennials getting married too young can't possibly be happy! They must have weird, dysfunctional sex lives.") Later these two women supposedly oppressed by the patriarchy bond over alcohol. Their story lines are not resolved at film's end and they just resume their miserable lives.
Of the Bridesmaids featured on the poster the only one depicted as having any level of happiness and consistent sexual satisfaction is Melissa who lives her life in imitation of a man, making sacks of money with her elite government intelligence career and kinky public sex adventures with whoever she wants. The film's themes might as well have been cribbed from Jessica Valenti, Naomi Wolf, and Amanda Marcotte: marriage leads to unhappiness, men will not love you, the path to fulfillment is in casual sex (an opportunity for the sexually aggressive, enlightened woman to exploit and dominate over a weak male) and financial independence. Can anyone name a film that more proudly champions the bleak nihilism of Gen-X, third wave feminism?
Another of the open secrets about the Judd Apatow comedies is that vulgarity and nudity only act to hide very socially conservative plots. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Funny People, Get Him to the Greek, Superbad, and Pineapple Express all promote abstinence, fidelity, pro-life values, and the consequences of irresponsible drug and alcohol abuse. Bridesmaids goes in the opposite direction, viciously caricaturing the very institution it pretends to celebrate. Three years ago I described the phenomenon of social conservatism embedded in R-rated raunch fest as "stealth conservatism." Let's hope that Bridesmaids is an aberration in the House of Apatow's usual steadier course. But given its overrated levels of critical and financial success it's hard to be sure.
Also see Roger and Lionel's take on Bridesmaids in this episode of Poliwood:
So there we have my first pair of cinematic heresies for 2012. But the gaps in my 2011 viewing are still large. Anybody else have recommendations for other underrated films to seek out and overrated to avoid from last year? Or disagree with my choices?