Friday, September 25, 2015

On Predictive Reviews; or, “It Probably Sucks”

Earlier tonight Vera and I decided on dinner and a movie. Was kind of spur of the moment, with no particular idea in mind when starting out for either half of the date.

For dinner we ended up at a burrito place down the road a bit that we like but hadn’t visited lately. For the movie we traveled over to a small theater located just around the corner from the restaurant, and of the available offerings decided The Intern starring Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway appeared the most inviting of the choices.

Apparently others were thinking similiarly, as the showing was sold out. We drove a few miles up the road to another, larger theater where we discovered another showing was also sold out, but another one a half-hour later was not. We bought tickets for that one, spent time at a nearby Barnes & Noble looking at magazines, books, and vinyl records (I was surprised to see), then got back over in time for the movie.

I’m not going to provide a review here other than to say it was an enjoyable couple of hours, with both DeNiro and Hathaway giving solid performances (as usual).

For DeNiro such roles are obviously a million miles away from his finest work. I had to chuckle a little at one kind of silly sequence when he was looking at himself in the mirror and testing out lines he’d deliver in a later meeting with Hathaway’s character, thinking back to the severe contrast of Travis Bickle threateningly asking himself “You talkin’ to me?” in another mirror long ago. Meanwhile Hathaway is more obviously portraying a character that evokes an earlier one, here playing the boss rather than the personal assistant as she did in The Devil Wears Prada.

One observation I’ll share about the film has to do with the music, which I realized about halfway through was kind of relentlessly designed to keep the mood as light as possible at all times. Every transition and most empty auditory spaces within scenes were filled non-invasive snatches of “easy listening” that helped lessen any sort of apprehension about what was coming next. It was the exact opposite of, say, better horror soundtracks (of which I’m a great fan) that produce the opposite effect of making it impossible to relax.

In any case, the main point I wanted to make about The Intern in this non-review has to do with how when it comes to movies so many are so quick to fire off reviews without having seen the film at all, usually forming those judgments on either the trailer (or a 30-second TV spot), what the “Rotten Tomatoes” site is saying, or both.

For example, there is a new piece on FiveThirtyEight currently discussing “The Three Types of Anne Hathaway Movies.” The article begins with a one-sentence summary of the The Intern’s premise (DeNiro portrays an elderly intern working for the younger Hathaway) followed by the flat judgment “That’s the extent of the joke.” A total, unambiguous dismissal.

Then comes the next sentence: “And judging by the trailer, the movie doesn’t get any more sophisticated than that.”

That’s right. The author, Walt Hickey, hasn’t even seen the film he’s just dismissed. (From there he goes straight to Rotten Tomatoes, natch, for supporting data.) It’s like deciding a hand isn’t worth playing before you even get a look at your hole cards.

The article goes on to share another one of those catalogues of subgenres 538 likes to create, then analyzes each category according to box office and, of course, Rotten Tomatoes ratings (which somewhere along the way has become an unquestioned quantitative measure of cinematic value). The conclusion then suggests Hathaway’s track record “means ‘The Intern’ may suck (and it probably sucks, barring a brilliant twist or a terrifically inaccurate trailer).”

I guess that’s the point of the 538 site which tries to use data to predict outcomes of all kinds -- politics, sports, entertainment, business, and so on. So maybe it isn’t entirely fair to complain about someone on the site providing a kind of “predictive review” of a film before actually seeing it.

I’ll agree the trailer for The Intern didn’t exactly enthuse me much when I saw it a couple of weeks back. Nor did it suggest the film was going to be anywhere near as brilliant and moving as Interstellar (the last film with Hathaway I’ve seen). Now that I have actually seen the move, I’m not going to defend it too vigorously as an especially remarkable achievement in film, although as I said it was entertaining and even somewhat thought-provoking despite its efforts to avoid challenging the audience too aggressively.

But think about it. How often does “it probably sucks” essentially stand in for reviews by those who actually watched a film? Or really listened to an album? Or carefully read an article on which they’re commenting (something I’m remembering coming up here before)?

I guess in a way the film itself is trying to explore that common phenomenon of preconceived ideas -- in this case about age and about working women -- overwhelming our ability to exert fair, unblinkered, informed judgments.

How well or deeply does it explore this phenomenon? That’s something you can judge a lot better if you see it.

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