The Answer Man got a message the other day from a guy who wanted to know why the major critics all run with a herd mentality. He goes to Cream of the Crop at Rotten Tomatoes and on some films they all agree, with maybe a couple of holdouts. I've noticed this, too.
When a critic votes with a vast majority, I think one reason is that some films are obviously good or bad (in the eyes of most people). But when one lonely critic stands apart from the mob, there may be a message to be learned, and that may be the critic you should make a point of reading, assuming he or she has been interesting in the past. There may be a special expertise or sensitivity coming into view, or a film may have been made with such specialized intent that its qualities are invisible to the majority. Or, sometimes, it may be the auteur theory at work, and the critic may be so invested in the work of that director that he or she sees things that reach specifically to his wave length.
Example: Harmony Korine's new film, "Mister Lonely." It gets a 50 at Metacritic, but high praise from Don R. Lewis at Film Threat. I understand that. I was one of very few critics who admired Korine's "julien donkey-boy." In that case I think I responded to the total freedom he granted himself to impose audacious and extreme characters and situations upon us. A lot of people were not willing to take the ride, and I understand them. Another example, close to my heart: It is almost impossible for Werner Herzog to make a film I dislike, but not everybody agrees. I have determined that he is the most creative source of new and visionary imagery in the movies, and I've seen nothing to change that opinion.
The average moviegoer doesn't care about the treasured personal inclinations of a critic on a particular peculiar film. The average moviegoer just wants to walk in, get his movie, and go home. I remember when the Spudnut Shop opened on campus. My friend Paul Tyner went to work there, and noticed a sign behind the counter: "No reading!" He asked the owner what that was about. "I have 18 stools at my counter," the guy said, "Some guy could come in and start reading some book and never stop. My motto is, get 'em in, give em' their Spuddies, and get 'em out again."
That is also Hollywood's motive, although they don't care if the Spuddies are studded with nails, as long as people buy them. But there are always some moviegoers who are excited by the experience of the surprising and the new, and realize a film is reaching them in a personal way. Consider the response to my mention of "Joe vs. the Volcano" a week or so ago. I got a lot of comments from readers who have, like me, treasured that rejected and forgotten film for years. One family watches it annually. When I praised the film, I suppose I was writing for those specific readers, although I didn't know it.
Remember that most critics write without benefit of hindsight. The Tomatometer has not yet run up its totals when they review a new film, and they may be astonished to find themelves in a minority of one. They 're not running against the herd because the herd has not yet formed. They are offering an opinion that, it turns out, will be the exception to the rule. When you find a review like that, think about it. Few of us have a desire to see the same damned thing over and again, but Hollywood is never happier than when supplying it. A minority opinion (better still, a majority of critics "surprised," or, one of my favorite words, "blindsided" by a film) are urgently trying to tell you something. And for you, they may be right.
Final example. My review of "Beowulf" was largely alone in the field; I thought it was brilliant, and I thought it was intended not just as action and fantasy spectacle, but as bawdy, audacious humor. Hardly anyone agreed. But the co-writer Roger Avary wrote me that, indeed, it was written as an over-the-top comedy, and he thought it worked that way. See it in that light, and you may see a different movie. Your particular sensibility may discover gold that otherwise washes away in the flood.
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