The Secret to Reviewing Mediocre Movies

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An optimist’s view on criticism.

Nobody wants to make an average anything. Not an average dinner table, not an average timetable; not an average movie, not an average movie review. When criticism comes in, if you happen to be one of the lucky few to do it professionally, you eventually end up having to delve into a movie that nobody’s happy with producing and you’re definitely not happy writing about.

Somehow, there must be a way to keep churning out quality writing about cookiecutter cinema, right? Otherwise the best reviews and the best films would sync up perfectly while the sick enjoyment sometimes taken in panning a movie wouldn’t have enough emotion to fill the syllables in schadenfreude. Finding the nuance in the in-betweens, the two-and-a-half-star movies that more closely reflect our imperfection, is often where the beauty lies. That’s something that’s taken me a while to figure out.

I’m not a cinephile like a lot of the young film critics coming up who were raised on Criterions and the late-night movie channel. When I watch a movie for the first time, people usually react with what in the world has taken you so long, you monster because there’s a certain expectation for a person in our business to have seen, well, everything. An overlooked classic means a loss of credibility. How can you write without knowing about XYZ and her legendary film? If I’ve got the quantitative advantage on you, then how dare you front some sort of authority? Honestly, I try not to.

When I started writing about movies, I was making lists in Facebook notes back in 2008. At 16, I’d employed clickbait headlines (“Top Ten Moments of…”) for nothing more than my own ego. Teenage narcissism (and an insatiable appetite for attention) made me an SEO pro before graduating high school. Yes, I was a lot of fun at parties. No, nobody ever found that out by inviting me to a party.

That turned into writing full reviews for the college paper, then my own blog which ‐ in my brilliant plan to differentiate myself in the saturated market of film criticism ‐ focused around providing readers up front with a “yes” or “no” recommendation. As time went on, the final section of these reviews, separate from the pros and cons, got longer and longer. If you do something enough times, you tend to get better.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen a lot of movies. But mostly, I write. That’s the big difference between critic and audience. We may understand the narrative formula of the films and have our visual palettes refined to a point where we can identify and judge more technical aspects like why those actors are positioned that way and what exactly that change in lighting meant. But that feeling when someone’s stuck pondering, searching for the right words, rolling their eyes up like they might be written on the insides of their eyelids ‐ that’s the moment I live for.

Jumping in with an analogy, a little wit hiding the exact neural connection needed for the reader, is the biggest high. Whether that means capturing a movie’s themes in an elegant phrase or comparing X-Men’s Apocalypse to a villain in a McDonald’s cartoon, you make a connection with the reader. “That’s exactly what I [thought/meant/was trying to say]!” Or even better, you can bring someone around with your words. Maybe not convince them that your point is correct, but at least that there’s something present worth their consideration. There’s room for this in every movie, from an arthouse masterpiece to a live-action Bratz film, but the most fervent debate and often the best writing, comes from the imperfect messes.

So I don’t do that whole “yes or no” thing anymore. Dismissing a film out of hand without talking about it feels wrong, dirty, like issuing taste decrees from a balcony. It’s also a disservice to what we’re writing about and (ostensibly) love. How can someone who writes the same review every time expect anything else from their movies? No nuance means no insight, which falls into the “samey” trap as mediocre movies. Nobody wants to read that. Each review should be something I’m proud to publish or at least contain something I’m proud to publish.

That might sound a little optimistic, but it’s how to do this job without losing your mind or your fire. Each film that doesn’t immediately strike as artistic lightning or fizzle like a toaster in the bath has the unique gift of being a challenge. How do we crack this nut? What new is there to say, and if nothing, why? Does each entry in the X-Men series tread water for profit like the world’s least impressive professional swimmer? These middling movies, the ones getting “mixed reviews” make critics think about their profession, either outside (how am I going to find something new to say about this) or in (what exactly is bothering me from saying this is purely bad or good).

Take Everest, a movie nobody had on their best-of list for 2015 yet by many standards a completely competent film. It didn’t stick with me or anyone I knew. Most critics I talked to forgot they’d even seen it. It was already dribbling out of my ears in the parking lot on the way home. But why? Eventually I figured out my personal reason for its mediocrity because of the greatest driving artistic impulse of them all: a deadline. Its embrace of the apathetic, godlike mountain as a neutral and natural arbiter of death meant the scattered fatalities in the party felt less like losses and more like side effects. It’s hard to make people care about a movie that treats its adventurers like pests before the almighty peak.

That’s way better than a structured list of film elements, whether they’re utilized effectively or not, and a bit of plot summary. It’s way better than a headline of “Meh” no matter how badly we may want to lead with it. That approach has never moved anyone to tears or to joyously rush to buy a ticket. It’s surely never made angry fans claim (or make petitions against) critics receiving kickbacks from studios. How do we keep reviewing mediocre movies? Well, often it’s the same way they keep making them: we’re trying to make something great.

Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).