Everybody’s a critic these days at the movies. Or, at least, everybody’s a critic hater. For some reason, three of the top movies released in the last couple of months have prominent and pretty unflattering roles for critics — New York Times critics in particular. Did the Old Grey Lady do something to tick off Hollywood?
In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman,” Lindsay Duncan plays a New York Times theater critic who sets up camp at the end of a bar in the theater district. When Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a faded action movie star trying to make a comeback with a Raymond Carver play, tries to chat her up, she hisses pure venom at him. She’s the only real villain of the play, not only cruel but corrupt, proudly announcing “I will kill your play” before she’s even had a chance to see it.
In the end, she writes a glowing review of the play, which is sort of a strange validation for the film, since Inarritu has established her as a character to be feared and not trusted. But even the rave has a barbed sting to it — the film’s subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance,” comes from its headline, and the review suggests that Riggan is basically a blind squirrel whose finally found that nut.
In Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes,” the critic in question is New York Times art critic John Canaday (a real person), who was outraged when Margaret Keane’s wide-eyed art was to be featured at the 1964 World’s Fair. Canaday was a Kansan by birth, but Burton casts the terrifying Brit Terence Stamp of “The Limey” in the role, an ascot-wearing prig who sort of inadvertently revealed the Keane deception (Walter Keane was taking credit for his wife’s paintings) while crusading against them.
Here, the critic as villain is especially odd, because otherwise “Big Eyes” makes no judgment whatsoever as to whether Keane’s kitschy paintings were good art or bad art. Canaday just comes off as a bad sport — even if the paintings are bad, why does he have to be so darn mean about it, anyway? However, I did enjoy the sight of a New York Times art critic commanding a bureau full of hard-working scribes. The features desk budget ain’t what it used to be.
Finally, the biggiest critic smackdown comes in Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” in which Rock’s avatar, a comedian turned actor named Andre Allen, bemoans the vicious reviews he’s received at the hands of a New York Times film critic he’s never met. In a twist that defies belief, it turns out that the New York Times feature writer (Rosario Dawson) that Allen has spent the day with also writes under a pseudonym as that critic. (She reveals this with a sense of shame akin to confessing a murder.) In otherwise enjoyable but uneven comedy, it’s a plot turn that beggars belief — if elite critics are supposed to be out of touch with how the general public thinks, it turns out Hollywood actors are way more out of touch with how elite critics operate.
What’s with the sudden jeremiad against critics? All three films are about the journeys of artists, so perhaps from a dramatic perspective it makes sense to make a critic the hero’s foil. But I think another thing at work might be that filmmakers are starting to feel the sting of bad reviews and buzz, something that’s harder for an artist to shield themselves against in the age of the Internet and Twitter. They can’t stay as insulated from the bad-mouthing as they have been, and if you’re Tim Burton and made “Alice in Wonderland” or Chris Rock and made “Grown Ups 2,” that might hurt.
Which is odd, since all three films have gotten good to great responses from critics. “Birdman” is consider a major Oscar contender, critics are calling “Big Eyes” Burton’s best in years, and New York Times film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis both put “Top Five” on their best-of lists for 2014.
Or, maybe they’re both really Rosario Dawson in disguise?