Dear Johnny, Gore, Armie and Jerry,
Hey, trusty scouts – just saw the box office reports for The Lone Ranger. A $190-million (U.S.) loss? Talk about your “Hi-ho Silver away.” Too soon? I understand you’re feeling sensitive. I just read the quotes from an English press junket where you guys – Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski – were in surprising agreement as to the cause of The Lone Ranger’s epic dump. The critics! Really – you shouldn’t have.
According to you, Johnny: “I think the reviews were written seven to eight months before we released the film. I think the reviews were written when they heard Gore and Jerry and me were going to do The Lone Ranger.”
And from you, Armie: “It’s got to the point with American critics that if you aren’t as smart as Plato, you’re stupid. That seems like a sad way to live your life.”
As smart as Plato? On second thought, perhaps you said “as smart as Play-Doh.” These junket transcriptions aren’t always accurate.
Sorry Johnny. The announcement about The Lone Ranger movie wasn’t seven or eight months ago. It came way back in 2007, the year we were busy reviewing Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which, despite poor reviews, racked up almost a billion dollars at the box office. This “unfair reviews” thing is such a win-win excuse. Either you succeed despite the critics, or, when you fail, the critics are the spoilers. But as mendacious as this line of argument is, it’s also kind of flattering.
At a time when arts reviewers are being laid off or bought out in newspapers facing declining ad revenues, critics rarely get this kind of credit any more. The movie business treats critics as primarily useful for promoting low-budget talky pictures (Blue Jasmine, Before Midnight, or Museum Hours) to an audience that would really rather stay home and watch Breaking Bad or House of Cards on TV. When it comes to mainstream movies, critics have kind of hung up their six-guns. Reviewers’ impact on the latest adolescent Adam Sandler comedy or Hollywood comic book epic is often negligible and predictable. The phrase “critic-proof” seems less the exception than the goal of the most profitable Hollywood movies, spectacular genre films with lots of explosions, sold around the world in 3-D equipped theatres.
As for the power of the press, some perspective is in order. The reported budget for The Lone Ranger was about the same as the $250-million Amazon founder Jeff Bezos just paid for the Washington Post to supposedly save print journalism. In fairness, The Lone Ranger isn’t just a garden variety bad movie. It’s an ambitiously bad movie – bloated with a clumsy framing device, with dead dialogue, unpersuasive characters and a central performance by you, Johnny, that perpetuates racial stereotypes while attempting to excuse it as a form of post-traumatic mental illness. A handful of critics applauded the film’s tonally-scattered quirkiness and perhaps producer Jerry Bruckheimer is correct that it may look better on a later viewing. There was, no doubt, a fairly strong negative consensus. The movie got a 29 per cent “fresh” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes rating from 201 reviewers and 37 out of 100 on the Metacritic site, based on 45 reviews. And although critics can occasionally be guilty of a piling on, when it comes to big budget movies, the cheerleaders usually outnumber the curmudgeons.
The larger problem for The Lone Ranger was the young audience had no particularly affinity for an antique cowboy series. As well, there was a much more entertaining family-friendly movie running opposite it on the Independence Day weekend – Despicable Me 2. Before a single review appeared, The Hollywood Reporter called it a major gamble, pointing out that the film “will need strong legs domestically and a stellar run internationally to come out ahead financially,” while noting that Westerns always have a tough sell overseas.
So, let’s acknowledge some legitimacy in the filmmakers’ complaints. Critics may have tipped the balance on The Lone Ranger, an already vulnerable movie. Critics do, in fact, influence moviegoers’ decisions. According to research from the now defunct review aggregate site, Movie Review Intelligence, 81 per cent of 71.5 million American film-goers used reviews to make their choices, with viewers who see at least 12 movies a year reading several reviews a month before deciding what to attend.
So, thanks for the backhand compliment, you guys. It’s heartening to hear that reviewers can still influence readers to avoid a bad movie, despite its multi-million dollar marketing budget. If reading my negative review of The Lone Ranger saved someone 21/2 hours of their lives, a few bills and exposure to another painful racial stereotype of a Native American, I’m happy to wear the black hat.