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Middlebrow, eh? Well, more please

A critic appeals to his peers to value 'issue' films like 'The Help.'

August 14, 2011|Stephen Farber | Farber is a film critic for the Hollywood Reporter

If it had been released 50 years ago, "The Help" would have been the cinematic event of the summer. It has all the elements that once guaranteed critical hosannas. It's based on a beloved, bestselling novel and has a high-class cast that includes several award-winning actresses (Viola Davis, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburgen) along with ingratiating newcomers (Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Olivia Spencer). And it tackles a socially momentous theme: the relationship between white women and their black maids in the segregated South during the early days of the civil rights movement. Yet quite a few of the reviews have been lukewarm, which proves how drastically times have changed.

Movies with such a prestigious pedigree won nearly universal acclaim in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Think of such Oscar-winning films as "Gentleman's Agreement," "All the King's Men," "The Defiant Ones," "Judgment at Nuremberg," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "In the Heat of the Night." Critics lavished praise on these movies, and the industry showered them with awards. But values changed when a new generation of critics decided that once-disreputable genre pictures -- film noir thrillers, screwball comedies and low-budget westerns -- had been slighted while the press was slavering over movies with weightier themes.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 14, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Middlebrow films: In the Calendar section elsewhere in this edition, an essay calling on critics to support middlebrow films refers to "The Help" actress Octavia Spencer as Olivia Spencer. The error was detected after the section went to press.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 21, 2011 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 3 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Middlebrow films: An Aug. 14 essay calling on critics to support middlebrow films incorrectly refers to "The Help" actress Octavia Spencer as Olivia Spencer.

These once-fashionable message movies came to be derided as earnest, simplistic and sentimental. There's another key word that succinctly defines these earlier critical favorites: middlebrow. The word means "somewhat cultured" or aspiring to intellectual substance without quite reaching the exalted heights. Virginia Woolf defined the middlebrow reader as "betwixt and between," devoted not to art for its own sake but to "money, fame, power, or prestige." In other words, the middlebrow is not quite as smart as the true highbrow and not as spirited as the unpretentious lowbrow. Today's critics wouldn't dream of keeping company with this crowd.

But here are a few other words that might describe the films mocked as middlebrow: ambitious, humanistic, impassioned, moving, hard-hitting. When did all those adjectives turn into dirty words?

Many fine films are undervalued because they fall into the hated realm of the middlebrow. In addition to "The Help," here are several other recent ones that didn't get their just deserts. "The Whistleblower" is a potent drama about sex trafficking in the Balkans, anchored by a brilliant performance from Rachel Weisz as the investigator who fought to expose the conspiracy. Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal called the movie "clumsily didactic and flat." The Los Angeles Times' Mark Olsen agreed that it was "too well-intentioned for its own good."

"Sarah's Key," a wrenching Holocaust drama, also got the back of several critics' hands. The Village Voice's Melissa Anderson charged it with "wringing from atrocity the most unseemly sentimentality" and added that it was "filled with the usual meaningless bromides." Chris Weitz's "A Better Life" impressed me as a searing father-son drama built around the hot-button issue of illegal immigration. Variety's Justin Chang dismissed it as "an earnest and overly programmatic heart-tugger."

Last year's "Rabbit Hole" was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a family struggling with grief after the accidental death of their child. Theater critics generally raved, but their film compadres were more skeptical. Karina Longworth, critic for the LA Weekly, scoffed at the film's "tastefulness -- one schematic acting showcase of a scene after another, rendered in an incredibly manipulative prestige-pic 'minimalism.'"

A year earlier "The Last Station," a moving drama about the last days of Leo Tolstoy, was praised for its performances but otherwise treated rather shabbily by several critics. A.O. Scott of the New York Times accused it of "bombast and grandiosity," complaining that "it is so self-consciously eager to flaunt its own gravity and good taste."

Ambitious foreign films are not immune to the critics' barbs. This year's Oscar winner for foreign language film, Susanne Bier's "In a Better World," and the top choice two years earlier, Yojiro Takita's "Departures," both had a surprising number of vitriolic detractors.

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