I rush from a fancy office holiday dinner to see “The Ringer,” further delaying my Christmas break. A friend and I head to a crumbling multiplex next to the Garden State Parkway to endure “13th Child: Legend of the Jersey Devil.” I spend a Sunday afternoon, following a week of business travel, at a sneak preview of “Raising Helen.”
One of the great, enraging falsehoods about movie critics—or anyone whose opinion goes beyond “it’s cute” or “it wasn’t my thing”—is that we hate movies. Why would anyone waste time, the most valuable commodity, for little to no money to do something they hate?
Think of a movie released from August 2000 to October 2006 that made you want to punch a wall. There’s a good chance I was there on opening weekend—or soon after—for the (sadly) defunct Filmcritic.com. Every hastily put-together cartoon, low-budget, low-scare horror movie, and ill-advised relaunch was destined for me. I mean, I sat through two Uwe Boll movies. Voluntarily. Many of the site’s writers lived in cities with advance screenings. I lived in event-free Central New Jersey, an hour train-ride away from Manhattan, stuck in jobs with unforgiving hours. I had to take what I could get, like tackling “Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2” and “Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid” in a single weekend. The most I made for a review, I think, during that time was $12. Even then, I paid for my own tickets. I never felt a moment of remorse.
A bulk of that era of not-so good feelings I spent as a municipal newspaper reporter and a trade magazine editor, two occupations that flushed creativity from the soul. Bad movies were the IV drip. Maybe they weren’t entertaining, but I felt something. As a thank-you, I would fashion an obituary to remember. I wrote that the only thing saving “Never Die Alone” was “a caring projectionist, a lighter, and a trashcan.” “An American Haunting” was “like spending an afternoon in the world’s lamest haunted house.” If we were going to go down, the band would play full blast.
I never saw a movie out of spite or to bask in the superiority of a pithy line; the same applies today. When you have 600 words to file in two hours, you quickly learn that straight bile only takes you so far. “The Honeymooners” fails because it has nothing to offer a current audience or fans of the TV show, plus Gabrielle Union (playing Alice Kramden) looks like she hasn’t scrubbed a pan in her life. Boll is a terrible director because his cuts are so abrupt and his camerawork is so shaky he makes Michael Bay look like Fassbinder.
My experience as a moviegoer improved. I was actually taking a class every time that I saw a bad movie. Explain why this movie is terrible. Find the source of your aggravation, and use as many adjectives as you can. Show your work. Trying to meet the challenge became a treat.
As someone who loved movies, I knew a surprise could emerge after the lights went down. Being told what to see brought a new intensity because I went in blind nearly every time. It’s all about the chase to find that high—and then sharing it with readers. Sometimes you find it. Sometimes you don’t. I know why so many critics cram in meals between film screenings or stay two to a hotel bed at Sundance. It’s why I happily frittered away sunny weekends and potential happy hours in mall multiplexes.
The beautiful part of seeing everything was that snobbery wilted and died. No longer constrained by what I wanted to see, I now sought the best experience. The good movies shone brighter. I loved “Freaky Friday” for the deft comedic performances of Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, who teemed with charisma, and its sly humor. I was floored. The poster, with Lohan looking like an intern at “L.A. Law” and Curtis dressed like Avril Lavigne’s mom, promised misery. I filed the lesson away: Dismissing a movie because of its marketing was like writing off the 1998 Yankees because pinstripes aren’t slimming. I got caught up in the bouncy enthusiasm of “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie,” which was good. The audience reaction made everything better. Kids laughed; a mom, bounced her child on her knee, and sang along with the music. I put myself, childless at the time, in their situation; empathy was added to my critic’s toolbox. Even moments worked. “An American Rhapsody” exposed me to Scarlett Johansson’s poise; “My First Mister” was a showcase for Albert Brooks’ dramatic range; “Just Friends” revealed Anna Faris’ manic comic energy, which the joke-a-minute “Scary Movie” squandered.
The worst movies, I learned, were contemptible. They offered nothing to savor, only cold, hastily constructed leftovers inspired by better directors or movies. Only they had the gall to expect our respect. “You’re here for two hours,” I could hear a studio executive whisper in my ear. “Who cares if we try?”
I did. I still do.