Misery loves company, so a friend who covers the movie business and I often call each other after a screening of a particularly bad movie to compare notes and make wisecracks. This summer we've talked a lot.
After seeing early screenings of "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," we were on the phone, predicting toxic reviews. To us, the much-anticipated Meeting of the Movie Giants (Steven Spielberg wrote and directed the film after Stanley Kubrick, who had developed the project for years, passed the baton to the younger director before he died in 1999) was a clinker. The film's first third was a creepy family drama; the second third an ultra-violent "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome"-style carny show; the third segment a murky Oedipal fantasy. If the critics hated "Hook," imagine what they'd say about this train wreck.
So imagine our surprise when the A-list reviews came in. The New York Times' A.O. Scott wrote a rave, calling "A.I." "a more profound inquiry into the moral scandal of dehumanization than either 'Schindler's List' or 'Amistad."' Newsweek's David Ansen labeled it "bravura moviemaking" and "the most ambitious Hollywood movie in sight." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum called it an "extraordinary" example of "what happens artistically when one important, influential moviemaker consciously tries to absorb the artistic spirit of another important, influential moviemaker." They weren't alone--there were plaudits from USA Today, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News and the Detroit Free Press, just to name a few.
To be sure, other reviewers were less enchanted, including The Times' Kenneth Turan and the New Yorker's David Denby, who dismissed the film as a "ponderous death-of-the-world fantasy." But on the whole, the country's critics were in a thumbs-up mode.
So when real people finally got to see the movie, they were in for a rude shock. As I made the rounds of Fourth of July parties, my non-show-biz friends rushed over to vent and complain, saying in essence that film is a stinker. Several reported that theatergoers were giggling during the film's final half-hour. As New York magazine's Peter Rainier, who gave the film a largely negative review, put it: "People I talked to didn't just say they disliked the film. They hated it."
Rank-and-file moviegoer sentiment was captured best in a letter to the editor that ran in Calendar 10 days ago in which Michael Endrizzi of Silver Lake said: "Forget about nonexistent movie critics--"A.I." could be the biggest scam ever put upon the general public by the entertainment industry. This film is horrible!"
The box-office grosses have reflected this indignant reaction. The movie had a solid opening weekend. But it dropped more than 50% in its second weekend and a disastrous 63% in its third; the film has grossed about $70.1 million so far. Bad buzz spreads fast.
If nothing else, "A.I." has the distinction of being the first Spielberg movie to be generally beloved by critics but generally loathed by the public.
The critics' embrace of the film raises several intriguing questions. Is our aging critical elite terminally out of touch with regular moviegoers? Were their critical antennae overwhelmed by the one-two punch of Spielberg and Kubrick? Or were they simply grading on a curve, giving "A.I" high marks simply because it was one of the few movies this year that had higher aspirations than putting fannies into the seats?
If I were a critic today, I'd certainly be a sucker for a film with some flesh on the bone. Today's reviewers see so much slop that it's almost inevitable that they overpraise the few movies that exhibit even a whiff of heft or ambition. A movie critic today must feel like the restaurant reviewer who's been forced to spend months munching on French fries and cheeseburgers at McDonald's. When someone finally takes them to a decent neighborhood cafe, they go nuts.
"It's been a horrible six months, full of unmitigated dreck," says People magazine critic Leah Rozen. "So when you have a movie aimed at adults, instead of 13-year-olds, you're thankful for small blessings. Even if it's problematic, you're going to be respectful because you say, 'It made me think, there was substance and subtext, there was something to talk about."'
"A.I." certainly offered plenty for critics to talk about, especially the striking contrast between the two cinema giants' divergent sensibilities. In Ansen's review, Kubrick was mentioned eight times to Spielberg's 10, not bad for a guy who didn't even get a writing credit. "For critics, the draw was the relationship between Kubrick and Spielberg," says Rainer. "But for the average moviegoer, the draw was Spielberg. Knowing the story was a futuristic fantasy about a child, his fans were looking for the guy who made 'E.T.' and they felt gypped when he didn't deliver what they'd expected."