Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Reviews of Rotten Tomatoes, Walter Mitty, Inside Llewyn Davis, and American Hustle

I have been using Rotten Tomatoes for years now—it is a very valuable tool— but I have not felt compelled to comment until today after watching "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

I have been noticing a specific phenomenon lately; it is somewhat alarming but still useful. Mediocre films by "top level" directors get absurdly high "critic" ratings, but the audience’s “liked it" ratings run well below those percentages. Whereas some fine movies get mediocre reviews, and some mediocre movies get complete trashings (“47 Ronin”), yet those critical reviews are countered by positive audience responses.

Take, on the other hand, films like “Inside Llewyn Davis” or “American Hustle,” both of which received 93% from the critics. I lived through and loved the folk era—I recognized the Dave Van Ronk album cover and the obvious Tom Paxton references. I also saw the Mark Spoelstra reference (The Five and Twenty Questions album) which no reviewer seems to have noticed, and the Peter, Paul and Mary and Al Grossman references as well. I was a fan of Jim and Jean and the Clancy Brothers as well as Van Ronk and Dylan, and I loved Dave Van Ronk’s wonderful autobiography, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” upon which this movie was purportedly based. Unfortunately, the movie was tedious and lifeless with a complete disdain for the real musicians and the music scene of the time. The Coen’s have every right to create a story about a crass, selfish, self-important loser, but it is wrong to make so many direct references to real individuals while making no attempt to make that depiction have any basis in reality. The bit with the cat was the only redeeming virtue in this piece with the possible exception of a couple of song performances and John Goodman’s obligatory Coen Brothers’ cameo. This is either a mirthless comedy or a pointless, mean-spirited dramedy, but clearly the filmmakers could not make up their minds. The audience, of course, could make up their minds and only gave it a 75%, which is still rather generous.

“American Hustle”? More mediocrity: unfunny slapstick; aggressive scenery chewing by nearly all cast members (as much as I enjoy both female leads); missing motivation and inexplicable actions; a painfully predictable plot—even if you don’t know the “history”— with no real tension or suspense (unlike, for example, “Argo”); and nothing at all noteworthy about the actual style of the film. Critics: 93%  Audience: 81% (I would argue highly overrated by both).

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is, on the other hand, quite a masterful piece of movie making. The fact that it has much more in common with the Danny Kaye movie of the same name than with the James Thurber short story is forgivable. It would be nearly impossible to film the actual story today. For one, it is extremely short (only a few pages); for another, it is a very harsh and sarcastic, though amusing, attack on a daydreaming nebbish who is a menace to himself and those around him. There is not one whit of romanticizing about foolishly fantasizing Walter and his necessarily domineering wife.

Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a thoroughly engrossing new take on the theme of breaking out of one’s box and taking a chance on life and love; an old story but nicely envisioned and reinvigorated. From the first instant of the very clever opening credits, the viewers understand that they are in an unusual world, a world that is an overlapping of fantasy and reality. The filming of both the “real life” and the fantasy scenes are truly noteworthy. The intertwining conceits of online dating and a mystery surrounding the final cover of the iconic Life Magazine create a compelling premise that takes the viewer on a nice set of turns along the way (and I don’t just mean the skateboard). The action sequences and the wonderful vistas are legitimately breathtaking while comfortably fitting the outlandish story. This movie is gentle in its humor—plenty of chuckles but few guffaws—yet certainly funnier than either of the other movies with which it is compared above. This movie, though, was not going for guffaws, it was going for heart, which it has in abundance. I defy anyone to find any real heart in either of those “top rated movies.”

“Walter Mitty” has only a 49% rating from the critics, but a 79% from the audience, and I predict that this assessment will rise as word of mouth allows the Stiller film to overcome both the completely unjustified critical “write-off” as well as the “I just don’t like Ben Stiller” prejudice. This is extremely well written, well acted, well filmed, and well directed, and it deserves a much wider audience.