Tuesday 28 March 2017

How the critics have a hangover too

The Hangover Part II
The Hangover Part II

Todd Phillips' comedy sequel The Hangover Part II has had a huge opening few weeks at the international box office, and looks set to make even more money than the 2009 original. It's top of the box office charts here and in Britain, and in the US the film almost recouped its $180m (€124m) budget in its opening week.

This success, however, comes despite virtually universally scathing reviews. The New York Times called it "largely mirthless" and Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian decided that "all the fun has been drained from the movie" and gave it one star out of a possible five. The general critical consensus is that The Hangover Part II is a lazy and derivative sequel that trades shamelessly on the coattails of the original, but the cinema-going public seems to disagree.

Newspaper blogs have fielded angry communiqués from readers insisting the critics have no idea what they're talking about, and Todd Phillips's film could well end up being the biggest comedy of the year. If it does it will join a select but distinguished band of movies that were critically rubbished but ended up achieving huge success.

It seems that sometimes the film critics just get it all wrong, and rarely more egregiously so than with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

When Hitchcock announced his intention of adapting Robert Bloch's novel about the exploits of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, it seemed the whole world was against him. His studio, Paramount, repeatedly refused to back the film and he ended up financing it himself and shooting it with a TV crew.

When Psycho emerged in the summer of 1960, the critics were mainly horrified. American critics called it "a gimmick movie" and "a blot on an honourable career", and in Britain The Observer's CA Lejeune was so incensed by the film that she walked out before the end and promptly resigned her post.

But, as usual, Hitchcock knew what he was doing, and despite its ghoulish themes Psycho became a surprise summer hit. Made for only $806,000, it earned more than $32m at the box office, spawned a host of imitations and is now considered a classic.

So is Stanley Kubrick's 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, but critical opinion was sharply divided when the film came out. Though some commentators, like Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times, thought it "succeeds magnificently on a cosmic scale", many critics found its experimental style and grand themes deeply pretentious.

Pauline Kael of The New Yorker led the critical charge, dubbing 2001 a "monumentally unimaginative movie". The New York Times described it as "somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring", and respected film writer Andrew Sarris called it "a disaster" and "one of the grimmest films I have ever seen in my life".

2001 is hard-going, no doubt, and at almost three hours makes serious demands of its audience. But it was so visually innovative that it became a must-see film and went on to earn a very respectable $57m at the box office, making it one of Stanley Kubrick's most commercially successful films.

Often considered the first of the so-called 'American New Wave' films that swept Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 70s, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) memorably recreated the brief careers of legendary 1930s outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

But its groundbreaking depiction of violence proved hugely controversial. Newsweek's Joe Morgenstern called it a "squalid shoot-'em-up for the moron trade", and Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was so appalled by Bonnie and Clyde's bloody gun attacks that he began a campaign against increasing brutality in American films.

But Arthur Penn had the last laugh. Mr Crowther was subsequently sacked by The New York Times for being out of touch with public sentiment, and Bonnie and Clyde was nominated for a raft of Oscars and brought in 28 times its $2.5m budget.

Sometimes, though, the critics can be forgiven for dismissing a film that goes on to make a lot of money. Despite the luminous presence of a young Julia Roberts, Joseph Ruben's 1991 thriller Sleeping With the Enemy looked like a barely competent B-movie.

Patrick Bergin's villain was a bit over-the-top, the storyline was ridiculous and the film seemed to have turkey written all over it. The critics were scathing but the public begged to differ, because the film became a massive box office hit and helped establish Ms Roberts as an A-list star.

The 1990 kids' comedy Home Alone is now a much-loved family classic, but not all the critics noticed its potential. Ebert was particularly dismissive, calling it contrived and entirely implausible, which was kind of missing the point. Home Alone was the biggest grossing film that year in America, and eventually earned a whopping $476m worldwide.

The critics really hated Patch Adams, a nauseatingly sentimental 1998 Robin Williams comedy very loosely based on the career of an unorthodox American doctor who believed in wearing a clown nose to make his patients laugh, but the film did very tidy business at the US box office.

Sometimes entire careers flourish in spite of constant critical sniping. Take Roland Emmerich, for instance. The German director is famous for his big-budget, effects-laden disaster movies, like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow.

His movies have made more than $2bn, but none of them have much pleased the critics.

He spent a cool $200m making his 2009 movie 2012, which imagines a climatic disaster that threatens humanity's continued existence. Rolling Stone magazine was unimpressed by what it described as a piece of "cynical, mind-numbing, time-wasting, money-draining, soul-sucking stupidity", but 2012 eventually made a staggering $769m.

Michael Bay is another big-budget director and producer who has never found favour with the scribes. His not-particularly subtle output includes The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and the Transformers films, which between them have grossed more than $3bn, but you'll search long and hard to find a kind critical word.

"An assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense and the human desire to be entertained" is how one critic described Bay's hugely successful 1998 disaster movie Armageddon.

Comic actor Adam Sandler has never been top of the critical hit parade. Since he broke through to the big time way back in 1995 with the sports comedy Happy Gilmore, his slapstick style has had its detractors, and even in his most successful films, like The Waterboy and Big Daddy, his goofy mannerisms have been widely derided.

But Sandler may not be all that concerned: he remains a hugely popular A-list star, reputed to be worth more than $300m. So much for film critics.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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