A. O. SCOTT
Let’s start with a few numbers. At Rottentomatoes.com, a Web site that quantifies movie reviews on a 100-point scale, the aggregate score for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” stands at a sodden 54. Metacritic.com, a similar site, crunches the critical prose of the nation’s reviewers and comes up with a numerical grade of 52 out of 100. Even in an era of rampant grade inflation, that’s a solid F.
Meanwhile, over at boxofficemojo.com, where the daily grosses are tabulated, the second installment in the “Pirates” series, which opened on July 7, plunders onward, trailing broken records in its wake. Its $136 million first-weekend take was the highest three-day tally in history, building on a best-ever $55 million on that Friday, and it is cruising into blockbuster territory at a furious clip. As of this writing, a mere 10 days into its run, the movie has brought in $258.2 million, a hit by any measure.
All of which makes “Dead Man’s Chest” a fascinating sequel — not to “Curse of the Black Pearl,” which inaugurated the franchise three years ago, but to “The Da Vinci Code.” Way back in the early days of the Hollywood summer — the third week in May, to be precise — America’s finest critics trooped into screening rooms in Cannes, Los Angeles, New York and points between, saw Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s best seller, and emerged in a fit of collective grouchiness. The movie promptly pocketed some of the biggest opening-weekend grosses in the history of its studio, Sony.
For the second time this summer, then, my colleagues and I must face a frequently — and not always politely — asked question: What is wrong with you people? I will, for now, suppress the impulse to turn the question on the moviegoing public, which persists in paying good money to see bad movies that I see free. I don’t for a minute believe that financial success contradicts negative critical judgment; $500 million from now, “Dead Man’s Chest” will still be, in my estimation, occasionally amusing, frequently tedious and entirely too long. But the discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for.
Are we out of touch with the audience? Why do we go sniffing after art where everyone else is looking for fun, and spoiling everybody’s fun when it doesn’t live up to our notion or art? What gives us the right to yell “bomb” outside a crowded theater? Variations on these questions arrive regularly in our e-mail in-boxes, and also constitute a major theme in the comments sections of film blogs and Web sites. Online, everyone is a critic, which is as it should be: professional prerogatives aside, a critic is really just anyone who thinks out loud about something he or she cares about, and gets into arguments with fellow enthusiasts. But it would be silly to pretend that those professional prerogatives don’t exist, and that they don’t foster a degree of resentment. Entitled elites, self-regarding experts, bearers of intellectual or institutional authority, misfits who get to see a movie before anybody else and then take it upon themselves to give away the ending: such people are easy targets of populist anger. Just who do we think we are?
There is no easy answer to this question. Film criticism — at least as practiced in the general-interest daily and weekly press — has never been a specialist pursuit. Movies, more than any other art form, are understood to be common cultural property, something everyone can enjoy, which makes any claim of expertise suspect. Therefore, a certain estrangement between us and them — or me and you, to put it plainly — has been built into the enterprise from the start.
The current schism is in some ways nothing new: go back and read reviews in The New York Times of “Top Gun,” “Crocodile Dundee” and “The Karate Kid Part II” to see how some of my predecessors dealt with three of the top-earning movies 20 years ago. (The Australian with the big knife was treated more kindly than the flyboy or the high-kicker, by the way.) And the divide between critic and public may also be temporary. Last year, during the Great Box-Office Slump of 2005, we all seemed happy to shrug together at the mediocrity of the big studio offerings.
No more. Whatever the slump might have portended for the movie industry, it appears to be over for the moment, and the critics have resumed their customary role of scapegoat. The modern blockbuster — the movie that millions of people line up to see more or less simultaneously, on the first convenient showing on the opening weekend — can be seen as the fulfillment of the democratic ideal the movies were born to fulfill. To stand outside that happy communal experience and, worse, to regard it with skepticism or with scorn, is to be a crank, a malcontent, a snob.
So we’re damned if we don’t. And sometimes, also, if we do. When our breathless praise garlands advertisements for movies the public greets with a shrug, we look like suckers or shills. But these accusations would stick only if the job of the critic were to reflect, predict or influence the public taste.
That, however, is the job of the Hollywood studios, in particular of their marketing and publicity departments, and it is the professional duty of critics to be out of touch with — to be independent of — their concerns. These companies spend tens of millions of dollars to persuade you that the opening of a movie is a public event, a cultural experience you will want to be part of. The campaign of persuasion starts weeks or months — or, in the case of multisequel cash cows, years — before the tickets go on sale, with the goal of making their purchase a foregone conclusion by the time the first reviews appear. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but the judgment of critics almost never makes the difference between failure and success, at least for mass-release, big-budget movies like “Dead Man’s Chest” or “The Da Vinci Code.”
So why review them? Why not let the market do its work, let the audience have its fun and occupy ourselves with the arcana — the art — we critics ostensibly prefer? The obvious answer is that art, or at least the kind of pleasure, wonder and surprise we associate with art, often pops out of commerce, and we want to be around to celebrate when it does and to complain when it doesn’t. But the deeper answer is that our love of movies is sometimes expressed as a mistrust of the people who make and sell them, and even of the people who see them. We take entertainment very seriously, which is to say that we don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for money. We do it for you.