Saturday, June 18, 2011

Movie Rant: Should Some Movies Be Exempt from Serious Film Criticism?

When I got together with a friend of mine a couple of weeks back we felt like watching an older film -- something light and fun, nothing heavy. Neither of us had seen Benny & Joon (1993), nor did we even know the premise. But, it had a young Johnny Depp so we figured it couldn't be that bad.

The premise: Benny (Aidan Quinn) has lived with his younger sister, Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) ever since their parents died when they were young. Although Benny and Joon are old enough to live in their own separate apartments, Benny continues to live with his mentally ill sister both as a protective measure and out of necessity (or so he thinks). When Benny loses a strange bet to one of his friends, he is forced to bring an eccentric young man named Sam (Johnny Depp) into his household. Uncomfortable expressing himself through words, Sam instead makes his feelings known through brilliantly imitated routines from old Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films. When Sam and Joon form a romantic bond, Benny starts to experience jealousy about his sister's growing independence from him.

While reading up on the film afterward I noticed that audiences and critics alike were pretty divided about their opinions. Some took it for what it was -- a sweet little distraction that was never meant to be taken as high quality cinema -- while others lambasted it as an empty and contrived film that reduced mental illness to a trivial character trait. Film critic Desson Thomson of The Washington Post commented on Rotten Tomatoes: "Riddled with insufferable contrived zaniness deals as deeply with mental illness as The Sound of Music explored the genocidal advance of the Third Reich." Yikes, I say. It got me thinking about film criticism and how, every once and awhile, it's simply okay to thoroughly enjoy a film without damning it for not being high-calibre cinema. I completely disagree with Thomson's comment and it made me think about films that I may have reviewed in the past that I maybe shouldn't have taken so seriously and criticized so harshly.

Joon (Masterson) and Sam (Depp). 
For the record, I loved Benny & Joon. Really, really loved it. It's one of those fun, light, feel-good movies that leaves you feeling better about everything. Yes, the script is a little sugary at times and, sure, it does overdo it on the quirkiness factor. However, I think there are certain movies that should get a pass when it comes to hardcore film criticism. Movies like Benny & Joon don't profess to be Oscar-calibre masterpieces packed with worldly insight into great matters. It's entertainment; a distraction that just so happens to have really lovely performances from the whole cast (especially Depp, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role). As Roger Ebert said in his favourable review of the film: "The movie suggests that love and magic can overcome mental illness and, at least for the length of the film, I was prepared to accept that. Much of the credit goes to Depp, who takes a character who may have seemed unplayable on paper, and makes him into the kind of enchanter who might be able to heal Joon." Here's Ebert, arguably the most famous film critic working today, and he responded favourably to Benny & Joon, despite its numerous flaws.

The audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes is at 85%, which is incredibly positive. The critical rating is lower, at 73% -- but that's still not too bad. Overall, it would seem the majority of people enjoyed the film. That being said, I'm sure everyone will agree that it's not exactly anywhere near one of the greatest films over made -- but it did what it set out to do; entertain.

I know there are a lot of people out there who hate film critics and think they shouldn't exist. I know people personally who say that it's one of the most useless occupations because it ultimately has little influence as to whether or not a person winds up seeing a certain film. While this may be true to a certain extent, I'm of the opinion that all art forms should be fairly criticized so that they can be discussed and studied. How else will we learn to form opinions, share our ideas and talk about popular culture without art criticism, in all its forms?

So, I guess my question to you is: Should some movies be exempt from serious film criticism? Or, if not exempt completely, should they be rated differently than certain higher quality films?