Original photo: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
In January 2020, Promising Young Woman premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to mixed reviews. The movie had the right message (“a female revenge fantasy”) but it was a sloppy mess (“not always surefooted in its style or substance”). “Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale,” wrote Dennis Harvey in Variety. “[She] wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on.”
The film, whose release was delayed because of COVID, seemed destined for a streamer—until Carey Mulligan and her publicity team went on the offensive. “It drove me so crazy,” she told The New York Times nearly a year after Harvey’s review first came out. “I was like, ‘Really? For this film, you’re going to write something that is so transparent? Now? In 2020?’ I just couldn’t believe it.”
The gambit worked. The insinuation that Harvey was attacking Mulligan for her appearance (in the movie, she does in fact put on female drag to lure her male victims) sent the online mob after the 60-year-old gay critic. His terrified editors quickly threw him under the bus. “Variety sincerely apologizes to Carey Mulligan and regrets the insensitive language and insinuation in our review of Promising Young Woman that minimized her daring performance,” they wrote in an unsigned note.
Promising Young Woman went on to receive an Oscar nomination for best picture, and Carey Mulligan received a nod for best actress. The note from Variety’s editors, which is still up on the website, reads more as a warning than as a correction.
Much is made over the disparity between critics’ and fans’ Rotten Tomatoes scores—as if highbrow critics can no longer relate to the unslakable thirst of a middlebrow audience for Hollywood’s superhero IP machine. But it’s not that critics ignore flyover hits (Yellowstone; Sound of Freedom) or elevate poorly made agitprop, which they often do. It’s that they’ve become as safe and predictable as the movies they purport to criticize.
It’s unsettling when you know how a film will be received before it’s even released. For a movie like She Said or Bros or Nyad or Origin (“movies about important events or formerly under-represented groups”) critics will praise a standout performance, talk about how important the subject or the “moment” is, and spend paragraph after paragraph flattering their readership’s political sensibilities. For films like May December or The Irishman or The Fabelmans (“new releases from old white guys who aren’t problematic—yet”) critics will praise the craft, talk about the past, and gloss over the fact that the old guys have nothing left to say.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe The Irishman is actually a brilliant meditation on guilt and identity, and The Fabelmans was a charming nostalgia piece—but the uniformity of opinion is alarming. There wasn’t a single mainstream critic in the entire English-speaking world who found The Irishman an interminable slog? After nearly 50 years, Spielberg finally had a genuine flop—and there was no one left to shiv him? Killers of the Flower Moon was an interesting movie—but you’d never know because critics gave it the same rave reviews they give every Scorsese film.
I enjoyed Barbie. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling were fantastic, and the millennial jokes (mostly) landed. That Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach somehow managed to communicate a “yas queen” feminist message from the mouth of a regressive toy doll is itself a remarkable achievement. But the self-conscious politics of the movie often overwhelmed the premise. This was duly noted by most critics—and applauded. “Those worried that the film would uncritically pedestal Handler’s invention have little to fear,” reassured the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s tough to voice a critique of capitalism from the point of view of a piece of merchandise, a fact that, to its credit, the Barbie screenplay … wryly and repeatedly acknowledges,” Dana Stevens wrote in Slate. Apparently making an anti-capitalist movie about a doll is in fact a great capitalist achievement of anti-capitalism, which is why you should run to the theaters and buy a ticket.
At all costs, Barbie critics—like the filmmakers themselves—labor to make one thing clear: They have no love for the doll itself. “Can you really call out and perpetuate a stereotype at the same time?” asked Justin Chang in the LA Times. “Would it have been better—more daring, and also more interesting—to tell the story from a less classically molded Barbie’s perspective?”
This is nonsense. Given where the culture actually is, the most daring version of Barbie—the version that would have caused a furor—would have been an unapologetic defense of the doll and its history. To pretend otherwise is insulting to anyone with a pulse. But the point isn’t that Justin Chang enjoyed Barbie, or that he didn’t—or even that he believes anything he writes. It’s to demonstrate that he and his readership are morally superior to anyone who might have actually enjoyed the film.
We are told to see movies not because they’re interesting, or beautiful, or because they challenge our preconceptions, but precisely because they don’t. Origin, Ava DuVernay’s latest loss leader (somehow adapted from Isabel Wilkerson’s nonfiction bestseller Caste, and even more astonishingly, underwritten by the Ford Foundation), challenged not a single assumption of its liberal target audience. “What makes DuVernay’s movie so essential is the way it approaches America’s most difficult issue,” wrote Variety. “It can be a little corny, but it’s also inspiring.” The BBC likewise damned DuVernay with faint praise. “Origin is fascinating: not a mere information dump or distanced thesis, but a celebration of academia,” wrote Steph Green. Not a mere information dump? Sign me up!
On and on these supposed raves go, a word salad of political posturing and mealy mouthed apologias (“slightly flat”; “the film wobbles”; “better served as a documentary”). You sense here a tiptoeing around, a fatal desire not to cause offense. The critics are trying to tell us this isn’t a good movie even as they tell us it’s a great movie.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the only critic who felt politically safe enough to take Origin to task after its premiere at Venice (“a twisted sibling of Eat Pray Love, in which the book’s author … leads us on a world tour of historical atrocities”) just happened to be a woman of color, Leila Latif. Similarly, the only mainstream critics who felt politically safe enough to excoriate Disney’s bloated live-action remake of The Little Mermaid—premised on the patronizing conceit that in the year 2023, it was still revolutionary to have a Black heroine—are all Black.
It might be hard to recall, but when it was first released, Succession received mixed reviews (“underwhelming in both execution and intent”; “halfway between the Bluths and Corleones”), with a Metacritic score below that of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. To my mind, Succession’s first season was fantastic, far better than the sometimes-brilliant but meandering show that circled the same will-they-or-won’t-they wagon for three more years. But critics didn’t want to appear politically offside when it came out—all those rich white men! So they hedged their bets accordingly. Once you’re in the club, though, it’s hard to get kicked out. Fargo is on its fifth season coasting on the same joke—and somehow receives the same praise.
A brilliant show like Atlanta receives the same scores as Netflix’s preposterous Queen Charlotte. MAX’s The Idol, with its problematic provenance, is panned—but is it really less interesting than Season 3 of Outer Banks? The Idol had a unique artistic vision—a vision many people clearly hated—but where are its champions? Why are The Fabelmans and The Woman King more highly rated on Rotten Tomatoes than the far more interesting Tar and Banshees of Inisherin? Saltburn was a much better movie than Promising Young Woman—but it lacked a political angle so it was effectively panned. More smart people I know vehemently disagree about the merits of Everything Everywhere All at Once than critics, who didn’t want to be cannon fodder for the A24 publicity machine.
To stay on the safe side of everyone, critics have learned to employ the deadening language of the press release. Here’s USA Today, writing about She Said, the anodyne retelling of the Weinstein saga: “A riveting cinematic quest for journalistic truth … should always be embraced.” Or Indiewire on Joy Ride: “This particular Asian American-led film is making history with an all-female cast, including a non-binary actor. Joy Ride is a prime example of how important representation is on screen.” Or Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times, this time writing about Rustin: “The movie’s achievement is to remind us that milestones are invariably the result of hard, often thankless work, preceded by conflict and marked by compromise.”
This anesthetized language, divorced from aesthetic experience, is antithetical to the spirit of art. Were any of these movies beautiful? Did they make the critic feel something? Or did they just check the right boxes?
So what? It’s only movie reviews, right?
Except these reviews don’t only affect the way we talk about film and television. They distort the incentives around what gets made in the first place. Once upon a time, when a big movie bombed, the Hollywood trades would have a field day: There was an almost primordial glee at the chaos, speculation about who at the studio was on the chopping block, who was off to directors’ jail. For all its ugliness, this schadenfreude was a vital part of the film ecosystem. Today, when a supposedly well-reviewed movie goes belly-up, we just hear quiet whimpers about how it “couldn’t find an audience.”
And because most movies never really get panned, whatever redeeming element a critic can point to—a director, a role, often just the idea behind the film—algorithmically nudges even a tepid review into positive Rotten Tomatoes territory. Blue Beetle, this past summer’s flaccid superhero offering, was bumped into positive critical territory because of the immutable racial characteristics of its lead actor. “It’s a shame that Sarandon’s character isn’t more menacing, or the dialogue/narrative more free of cliché,” NME wrote in a review. “But bringing us a first Latino superhero in a DC movie, ably played by the charming Maridueña, is still to be applauded.”
Babylon, last year’s Damien Chazelle bomb, is similarly praised for “shin[ing] a light on the non-white and queer people generally given minimal visibility in vintage Tinseltown narratives,” all within a larger review that also called it “an overworked pastiche” and an “emotional void.” The review is not quite a pan: Babylon gets written up as critically “mixed” with a 60 on Metacritic (trust me, it’s a zero), and studio executives are absolved for green-lighting a disaster. In a world in which nothing is bad, and in which nothing needs to make money, affirming the heroism of everyone’s good intentions ensures that nothing changes—and that everyone in the club gets to keep working.
Writers, for their part, see what critics demand and conclude: “Let’s do more of that.” After its first season, Ted Lasso came under fire for being too light and feel-good. “I would’ve preferred a show about soccer culture in the U.K. that deals more directly with the racial dynamics within its fan base,” complained Inkoo Kang in The New Yorker. And I would prefer that Ted Lasso be about the sound clashes in Jamaica in the 1950s (a subject with great dramatic and musical resonance, at least for me). Of course the writers took the note, at least in spirit, which is how we wound up with a bunch of soccer players discussing ex-girlfriends and cellphones and nude selfies with all the subtlety of a 1990s DARE ad.
A new era of cringe is upon us, and the critics have only themselves to blame. “The power of She Said lies in its moments of potent moral clarity, which arrive in revelatory set pieces,” explained The Washington Post. But moral clarity doesn’t produce art; it produces agitprop, including one of the schlockiest scenes of 2022 (singled out for praise in the NYT). These scenes are everywhere, the dialogue so leaden, the “message” so clear, you wonder why they didn’t save millions in production costs and write New York Times op-eds instead.
This mutually parasitic marriage of art and criticism has led to worse art and worse criticism. A healthy critical culture would have at least some layer of unpredictability—a capacity for both wonder and disgust. Instead, the overwhelming urge is to play it safe, to flatten disagreement into fake consensus.
The films critics do champion are safe and expected. Showing Up, a banal if competent vehicle in which Michelle Williams mopes around Portland while making bad art, seems to be on everyone’s top 10 lists. The stakes in Showing Up are as close to zero as possible. What might it actually mean to realize your life is a failure, that your art is mediocre, that the thing you’ve given your life to is ultimately meaningless? The movie, like the critics who pretend to adore it, is happy not to ask.
No matter how well done, the top-rated film of 2023 shouldn’t be a three-hour French documentary chronicling the everyday operations of a gynecological ward in a Parisian hospital. It speaks to a deep poverty of imagination that Our Body is followed on Metacritic’s 2023 top 10 by two more French documentaries. It’s safer, after all, to praise foreign documentaries and meaningless slice-of-life movies than to engage with the culture where it actually is.
Popular film and television criticism once functioned primarily as an engine of recommendation and secondarily as a means of social and artistic commentary. Increasingly it serves as neither. Lacking secure jobs or professional stature, and existing at the whims of politicized online mobs, today’s movie critics are the opposite of tart-tongued predecessors like Pauline Kael, Vincent Canby, and Janet Maslin. Instead of priding themselves on their willingness to stand up for art against the variable tastes of consumers and studios alike, they surrender to the pack.
Jacob Savage is a writer living in Los Angeles.