Almost immediately upon inception in 1998, the critic-based movie website rottentomatoes.com (RT) began its love/hate relationship with the film studios. If the aggregate score for a particular title was “fresh” — 60 percent or higher — studios were more or less happy; anything at 59 percent or lower was deemed “rotten” resulting in exasperated pouting by filmmakers and distributors.
For tent pole franchises (think Marvel, “Lord of the Rings,” or anything with “Star” in the title) what the critics think really doesn’t matter as these movies (along with most horror and Christian films) are largely considered to be “critic-proof.” No amount of critical praise or scorn will have any noticeable effect at the box office for these types of releases; the respective fan bases simply don’t care what critics think.
When it comes to low-visibility, “art-house” titles and those released during awards season (September through November), the studios depend greatly on critics’ opinions and RT scores; they can make or break their movies. Audiences that do not favor big-budget action extravaganzas tend to read critics more than mainstream fans.
In 2019, RT began including capsule-length reviews of movies by audiences; something its quasi-competitor imdb.com stopped doing in 2017. While many critics bemoaned this move, I couldn’t have been more pleased. For the duration of my 27-year career as a movie critic, I only line up with RT critic scores a little over half of the time and more recently have found myself agreeing more with audiences.
While there is no finite indicator of whether a movie is good or bad, as everyone has an opinion, if enough critics and fans reach a consensus, it’s usually correct. On the other hand, what happens when the critics’ score is positive and audiences think differently and vice versa?
Movies that Critics Love to Hate
Labeled as “torture porn” by most critics, “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) was nonetheless embraced by (largely Christian) general audiences and at one point was both the highest-grossing “R” rated and foreign language feature ever produced. Some believe the critics took issue with the largely negative portrayal of the Jewish clergy and critic’s consensus: “Director Mel Gibson’s zeal is unmistakable, but ‘The Passion of the Christ’ will leave many viewers emotionally drained rather than spiritually uplifted” simply underestimated the overall positive reaction from audiences, made evident in the 31 point difference.
An even larger gap (48 points) occurred just last month with the fact-based comedic drama “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” (2022). Set in the late ‘60s, it stars Zac Efron as an ex-Marine who returns to Vietnam as a civilian to hand out beer to a handful of his fellow Long Island, New York brethren. It’s a tad too long but unabashedly upbeat and patriotic, yet the consensus spoke otherwise: “Far from intoxicating, The Greatest Beer Run Ever reduces its fun fact-based story to a flat, flavorless brew.”
Sporting three fan-friendly leads (Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot), “Red Notice” (2021) is a rollicking action comedy hybrid of the “Indiana Jones” franchise and heist flicks. While the critic’s consensus states: “’Red Notice’s’ big budget and A-list cast add up to a slickly competent action comedy whose gaudy ingredients only make the middling results more disappointing.” The audience take — with a 56-point difference — reads: “’Red Notice’ promises big stars trading quips on a fast-paced action adventure — and delivers across the board.” Are these people watching the same movie? And what exactly does “gaudy ingredients” even mean?
Critics were especially hateful of “Where the Crawdads Sing” (a 63-point difference): “Daisy Edgar-Jones gives it her all, but Where the Crawdads Sing is ultimately unable to distill its source material into a tonally coherent drama.” Audiences couldn’t disagree more: “A particular treat for viewers who love the book, ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ offers a faithfully told, well-acted story in a rich, beautifully filmed setting.” This is a tonally consistent movie about a plucky orphaned girl living in the Deep South charged with murder (often resembling “To Kill a Mockingbird”) which is beyond pleasing and inspirational.
While in no way awards-bait, the family-friendly “Gigi & Nate” (2022) resulted in the biggest point difference (79) in recent memory. The critics: “There’s no denying ‘Gigi & Nate’s’ good intentions — but it’s also impossible to ignore this cloying drama’s clunky execution.” Yes, it is clunky and it does wear its heart on its sleeve but this movie is about a wheelchair-bound man who becomes the target of a PC “Karen” activist who wants to separate him from his emotional support monkey-wowed audiences. This says it all: “Round up the whole family and make sure you have enough tissues for everyone — ‘Gigi & Nate’ is too heartwarming to resist.”
When the Shoe Is on the Other Foot
When critics love something that audiences don’t, the differences become all the more apparent.
The critic consensus for “Night Moves” (2013) was glowing (86 percent): “A uniquely character-driven thriller with a finely composed cast and some outstanding direction from Kelly Reichardt, ‘Night Moves’ bolsters its thought-provoking themes with compelling drama.” Audiences (42 percent) however, found the message of celebrating domestic eco-based terrorism undesirable and off-putting.
With a point differential of 45, “The Card Counter” (2021) is a monumentally depressing, interminable, sleep-inducing, naval-gazing, snooze-fest. “Slow and dreary — a disappointing letdown,” said audiences. You couldn’t tell that from the critical consensus: “Led by Oscar Isaac’s gripping performance, ‘The Card Counter’ adds another weighty chapter to Paul Schrader’s long inquiry into man’s moral responsibility.”
The 49-point difference here is staggering. The critical consensus for the penultimate “Star Wars” episode reads “Star Wars: The Last Jedi honors the saga’s rich legacy while adding some surprising twists — and delivering all the emotion-rich action fans could hope for.” It was self-sabotaged by an overload of PC box-checking. It’s a misguided, virtue-signaling mess, and arguably marked the franchise’s ebb.
What the audience comments on RT (and the majority of my reviews) tell me is that the bulk, but certainly not all, of U.S. critics do not share the same views regarding family, country, patriotism, faith, personal rights, and other freedoms afforded to us by the U.S. Constitution. The RT critical majority also condones extremist terrorism while often valuing forced diversity, inclusion, and politically-correct storytelling.
Most people pay money to be entertained. Some like to laugh, others to be moved and uplifted, and quite a few more like to be scared, but nobody wants to be told what to think or worse, that what they think is wrong. All they’re asking for — as Otis Redding famously stated — is a little respect.
I’ve heard it said — more than once — that movie critics write not so much for their readership, but for the purpose of impressing other critics. They wish to wow those in their same field with a muscular, obscure vernacular and an ocean’s deep knowledge of backlogue cinematic minutia. That approach has little use beyond the movie industry “inside baseball” clique.
What critics need to remember is that they, like their readers, are at their core huge movie fans. The further they dive into the rabbit hole of elitist intelligentsia, the further they separate themselves from the common man — the very crowd they are supposedly addressing and advising.
It is entirely possible to write a review of a film and extol its artistic virtues while at the same time heralding its appeal to the masses without making said audience appear to be less informed or intelligent. That is the hurdle most critics cannot and will never clear.