It is not the easiest task being a film critic. Although it sounds like a hugely enjoyable occupation – sitting watching all of the latest releases for free, and being paid to write about them – there is a vast amount of dross to sit through on a weekly basis, and the responsibility placed upon the writers to differentiate the good from the bad can be an onerous one. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that, occasionally, even the very best of writers can get it badly wrong.
Sometimes, these are one-off lapses in judgement, and occasionally they are the understandable result of being swayed by hype, expectation and the reputation of a filmmaker. On other occasions, they indicate a disparity between a received, even snobbish opinion of what a good film ‘should be’, and what audiences take to their hearts – a situation that has been found even more prominently on stage, where such much-loved musicals as Les Misérables opened to scornful, even incredulous reviews before going on to great success. Here are six occasions when the critics got it wrong, mostly in underrating cinema that has gone on to iconic status, but once in misguidedly praising a mediocre film to the skies.
Alfred Hitchcock was one of Hollywood’s most critically and commercially successful directors in 1960, with his previous film being the glossy and entertaining spectacle North by Northwest, but the black and white, low-budget Psycho was a considerable change of pace and tone for him. Its shocking violence and outrageous plot twists were not to many critics’ taste; Bosley Crowther in the New York Times wrote that ‘There is not an abundance of subtlety or the lately familiar Hitchcock bent toward significant and colorful scenery in this obviously low-budget job’ and the Observer film critic CA Lejeune despised the picture so much that she walked out of the screening and resigned from her role. A brilliant marketing campaign saw it become one of the most profitable films of the year, and it has been reassessed subsequently as the first slasher film, with a gleefully mischievous sensibility lacking in many of its successors.
Peeping Tom (1960)
It was released the same year as Psycho, but legendary director Michael Powell’s searching examination of the connections between filmmaking and psychosis all but ended his career. Len Mosley wrote in the Daily Express: ‘In the last three and a half months, I have carted my travel-stained carcass to some of the filthiest and most festering slums in Asia. But nothing, nothing, nothing, neither the hopeless leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay nor the gutters of Calcutta, has left me with such a feeling of nausea and depression as I got this week while sitting through a new British film called Peeping Tom.’ Powell, working without his regular collaborator Emeric Pressburger, sought to illuminate his own ambivalent attitude towards filmmaking, but ended up being castigated as a pervert and the film flopped. Only later in his career, thanks to the support of his protégé Martin Scorsese, did he have the satisfaction of seeing his film reappraised as a dark masterpiece.
The Greatest Showman (2017)
When Hugh Jackman’s shiny musical about the impresario PT Barnum was released in cinemas in 2017, the critical reaction was largely lukewarm, rather than resoundingly negative. The review in the industry magazine Hollywood Reporter was fairly typical, as the critic wrote ‘This ersatz portrait of American big-top tent impresario P. T. Barnum is all smoke and mirrors, no substance.
It hammers pedestrian themes of family, friendship and inclusivity while neglecting the fundaments of character and story.’ It opened to an unspectacular $9 million on its opening weekend, but its vibrant and upbeat songs and lively spectacle saw it do consistently better at the box office week after week, and it eventually ended up becoming the third highest-grossing musical of all time, with a soundtrack that became 2018’s best-selling album in the UK. Critical disinterest was therefore pitted against audience enrapture, and lost.
The Shining (1980)
The legendary director Stanley Kubrick faced a consistent pattern in the second half of his career, from Barry Lyndon onwards. He would make a film, the critics would be scathing about it, and then it would be reassessed as a masterpiece years later. This was probably never truer than of his Stephen King adaptation, which broke most of the rules of horror filmmaking and came up with something truly terrifying in the process.
Yet although it was a big box office success, critics were scathing, and the Washington Post wrote ‘Stanley Kubrick’s production of The Shining, a ponderous, lackluster distillation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel, looms as the Big Letdown of the new film season. I can’t recall a more elaborately ineffective scare movie.’ It was nominated for Razzies, including Kubrick as Worst Director, but it was eventually reassessed, to its credit. Writers such as the legendary Roger Ebert, who originally panned it for being boring and emotionally distant, later revised their opinions, with Ebert writing of it, accurately, that ‘It is this elusive open-endedness that makes Kubrick’s film so strangely disturbing.’
Fight Club (1999)
Ebert was not always correct. He called Ridley Scott’s Gladiator ‘muddy, fuzzy and indistinct’, and the year before had described David Fincher’s end-of-millennium satire Fight Club as ‘the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since Death Wish, a celebration of violence in which the heroes write themselves a license to drink, smoke, screw and beat one another up.’ This paled in comparison to Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard, who fulminated against the film as ‘an inadmissible assault on personal decency, and on society itself’.
Walker and Ebert were part of a group of older critics appalled by the violence and apparent nihilism of Fincher’s film, but younger audiences were much more receptive to the film’s anti-materialistic message, to say nothing of its black humour and brutal twists. Although it was not a box office success, it has been a cult film since its release, and continues to be hugely influential and much beloved.
There are also occasions on which film critics can become over-excited, and have a tendency to follow the herd, something that is brutally exposed a few years later. An excellent example of this is Paul Haggis’s 2004 film Crash, a well acted but deeply schematic film about racial tensions in contemporary Los Angeles that won Best Film at the Oscars over the superior Brokeback Mountain, much to the surprise of many. It might have been less shocking had they read the original reviews; Roger Ebert called it ‘a movie of intense fascination’ and described it as his favourite film of the year, and its impeccably liberal message chimed with many. Yet it swiftly became notorious for having apparently stolen the accolade of a better film, and even Haggis himself expressed his disquiet at its reception, later saying ‘You shouldn’t ask me what the best film of the year was, because I wouldn’t be voting for Crash.’