Headed to the theatre this weekend? Were you intending on seeing The Counselor? Prior to purchasing tickets, I bet you logged on to Rotten Tomatoes before making the final decision. And there it sat a 35% rotten rating like a sore thumb on a new releases list with four other film deemed “fresh.” If that number dissuaded you from seeing the film then this next installment of Critic Speak is for you.
Critical debate regarding The Counselor has been raging back and forth this weekend with critics drawing lines in the sand over who “gets it” and who “hates it” with the ferocity reserved for a Lars Von Trier release. With all these feuds now is as good a time as any to address one of the stranger aspects of film criticism in the post-modern era: the obsessive pursuit of critical consensus.
Fortunately, A.V. Club’s Jesse Hassenger took the time to address the issue. Readers look at sites like CinemaScore! and Rotten Tomatoes and then place an (undeserved) importance on the A+ or 99% approval, so much so that films that are almost universally praised can end up dismissed after four or five critics out of a 100 decide not to go with the flow.
“This is symptomatic of a strange cultural deflation that sometimes places the bar for success ridiculously high: A- or better on CinemaScore! 88 percent or better on Rotten Tomatoes! $200 million or bust! Accept nothing less, and report it as even less than that. When Iron Man 3 came out earlier this year, several publications referred to its predecessor as “critically panned,” despite its 73 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes.”
Iron Man 2 was hardly an excellent film, but when nearly 3/4 of critics approved of the movie, dismissing a film as “critically panned” is hardly being honest. Baggage Claim and Little Fockers received As and Bs from CinemaScore and Killing Them Softly famously received an F from the same site. Little Fockers isn’t necessarily a better film than Killing Them Softly (I wouldn’t watch it again anyway), but because that film doesn’t challenge viewers’ perceptions, the grade is higher.
And that is why select cinephiles pull their hair out with the mention of a Tomatometer, quantitative measures for a qualitative medium not only don’t work, they don’t make sense.
“The question, then, of why we want to quantify something as diverse, messy, and varied as the general public’s opinion of a movie connects to the question of why we want to find a cultural consensus at all. It’s the same instinct that causes some readers to report a movie’s Rotten Tomatoes “score” as if film critics all had a meeting and agreed to assign a particular movie a particular grade. Even those who understand the actual metrics of the Tomatometer—it includes a lot of critics, good and bad, it relies on a binary thumbs-up/thumbs-down verdict that doesn’t allow for much nuance—may still find themselves referring to it. (Or they’ll talk about the superior accuracy of Metacritic, which ultimately still converts specific human reactions into semi-meaningless data). I know I do, even while understanding that a movie’s Tomatometer number has relatively little correlation with my enjoyment of it.”
An individual’s review can be filled with the little subtleties of a film, but when group-think gets involved then the conversation made up of authorities on film tends to lean toward absolutes. The film can either be terrible or awesome with no room left at the middle. Very quickly these scores are used as a barometer for what is socially acceptable to see and films that dare to challenge find themselves on the outside, and this week The Counselor is that victim.
A film like The Counselor is excellently crafted, but its subject matter is not going to lend itself to happy feelings, thus a sizable portion of the negative ratings. Art should not be judged by numbers, and it sure as hell shouldn’t define the conversation. A majority of critics deciding a score does not mean that there aren’t others with opinions just as valid. So the next time you see a 35% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, don’t write it off immediately.
As Hassenger says in the finale of his essay “…don’t trust the CinemaScore or the Box Office Mojo or even the Tomatometer. Go experience it for yourself.”