Do you ever feel sorry for inanimate objects? I do. I have suffered from this inconvenient tendency since childhood. Poor forgotten teddy bear, nobody loves him anymore. Poor old streetlamp, so lonely. Aw, look at the cheap little toys. Some nice grandma will buy these for her grandchildren, with joy and expectation, and they will hate them. These days I feel much sadder for suffering animals and people than I do for things, but sometimes I feel sorry for movies, the ones that mean well and have good qualities but are horribly trampled by critics. I even found Ishtar pretty funny, the more so because it was famously reviled. It is pure contrarianism, the same that makes me hate with extra zest an overpraised faux-independent snarkfest like Juno.
As Barack Obama would say, let’s be clear: it’s not the movies themselves I feel sorry for but the people behind them, who put so much hope, work and money into a new release. With an epic failure like Heaven’s Gate, the schadenfreude is deserved; with a smaller movie with imperfections, I sometimes want to say “good try!”
Lately, my childhood pity affliction has flared up something awful, and I feel compelled to defend unjustly maligned movies. A few years ago, I was laughed at by the host of a radio show where I was on a movie-critic panel. I said something about having sort of liked Swing Vote, the Kevin Costner movie that critics had abjured in unison. Having read a local newspaper reviewer’s enraged review, my friend and I decided to see it and perform what we now call a “rescue job.” We found the little movie about a down-and-out man who improbably becomes the lone deciding vote in a presidential election a gentle, likeable comedy, a kind of minor-league Preston Sturges fable. Nothing spectacular, and surely not Oscar fodder, if you care about that crap, but what had this modest movie done to provoke so much scorn?
The radio host snorted into the microphone. “No, really. Swing Vote?” He hadn’t seen the movie, but...Kevin Costner! Waterworld Kevin Costner. I was never asked back to sit on the panel. I don’t know if there was any connection between my embarrassing admission and my ouster, but clearly I wasn't the right type.
Recently my friend and I did a rescue job on the Sandra Bullock movie All About Steve. My friend didn’t know that it had been crushed to bits by reviewers, and when I told him, he was mystified. The movie, which stars Bullock as a socially awkward, super-smart crossword-puzzle constructor who becomes insanely obsessed with a news cameraman she met on a blind date, was a pleasant little fable, with many charms and flaws. It resides in the same neighborhood as quirky-protagonist movies like Lars and the Real Girl or the overlooked Wristcutters, movies I like because they play like celluloid short stories.
So what was it that made the critics hate All About Steve so vehemently? Is it because they expect something more slick and commercial from Bullock, who also produced this cinematic white elephant? Is it because she looks strange in the movie, with blonded hair, orangey-tanned skin, micro-miniskirts and unfortunate cosmetic surgery that betrays her age? Is it because they dislike smart women? The odd look is integral to the character, an introvert who lives with her parents, converses with her hamster and engages in a nonstop monologue about definitions, puzzles and an encyclopedic collection of facts. She's the kind of character who tends not to win friends, either in the movies or in real life.
I guess I am attracted to movies about unpopular, misunderstood misfits. It is the story of my life.