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'Carol' criticism: Why even risk it?

The movie's makers didn't expect left-wing media to like the conservative comedy. So they left critics out of the loop.

October 06, 2008|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

It is common practice for Hollywood studios to release movies without screening them in advance for critics. In recent weeks, a host of films have hit theaters without being shown to reviewers, notably "Bangkok Dangerous," "Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys," and "My Best Friend's Girl." Some do well, others fizzle, but the studio reasoning is almost always the same: If you have a dog, why ask for fleas? (The critics being the fleas.) If a movie has playability problems, studios would prefer to get as many unsuspecting moviegoers to see it before they read a review as possible.

David Zucker's new comedy, "An American Carol," opened Friday without being screened for critics either -- but for a very different reason. The film, a retelling of the old Scrooge story, has an openly conservative message, with Kevin Farley as a Michael Moore-style filmmaker who wants to abolish the Fourth of July. I had an e-mail exchange with Zucker on Friday, who said the film hadn't been screened for critics because its distributor, Vivendi Universal, was convinced that most film critics were too liberal to give it a fair shake.

"The educated guess is that those that don't like the politics will tend to label the film as 'not funny,' " Zucker explained. "Those audience members who don't care about, or do in fact agree with, the politics, find the film 'hilarious.' We were advised that most reviewers don't agree with the politics, which put the movie at risk."

Is that really true? Even if we agree, for the purposes of Zucker's argument, that a substantial majority of film critics are politically liberal (as we might agree that a substantial majority of leading Wall Street investors are Republican), does that necessarily mean that those critics wouldn't be fair to "An American Carol" simply because of its conservative politics? It's a hard question to answer, since truthfully there isn't really much of a sampling of openly conservative filmmaking to analyze. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was embraced by religious conservatives, but it was a film rooted in faith, not politics. John Milius' 1984 film "Red Dawn" was an openly conservative fantasy about communists invading the U.S., but it would be hard to pin its unenthusiastic reception solely on reviewer bias, since rank-and-file moviegoers didn't love it either.

On the other hand, I'd argue that liberal critics didn't give "Dirty Harry" a fair hearing, being too appalled by its vigilante-style violence to appreciate its black humor and bravura filmmaking. I asked our film critic, Kenneth Turan, what he thought of Zucker's concern about political bias:

"It's awfully convenient for David to believe that critics would be biased, but I don't think it's true," says Turan. "I think I could recognize good work, no matter what the political orientation. I've laughed at conservative, anti-Obama political cartoons even though I don't agree with their political bent. I think David's selling critics short. But we live in a free country, so David's free to believe what he wants."

Zucker did show the film to FrontPageMag.com's Ben Johnson, a conservative blogger, who -- surprise -- loved it, saying it "exposes every pseudo-intellectual pillar of Hollywood wisdom on the war on terror -- Samizdat with a smile." Of course, maybe Ben was biased too. Maybe he just liked the movie because it makes fun of Hollywood liberals. Let's face it, they're a pretty good comedy target.

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This item and others can be found on the Big Picture blog at latimes.com/thebigpicture.

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