December 20, 2020
Film critics have the often-thankless job of pontificating about movies and providing their ostensibly expert opinion on the film’s quality. The job of a film critic is not only to discuss whether they enjoyed the film, but also to provide some broader critique from an artistic and cultural perspective. While at times their consensus aligns with that of general movie-goers, credentialed critics can become so ensconced in their own self-importance as arbiters of good taste that they render themselves aloof, stranded in socialite penthouses like Frasier Crane.
Discussing the role of film critics, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos said, “Critics are an important part of the artistic process, but are… pretty disconnected from the commercial prospects of a film.”
While speaking with the filmmakers behind 2020’s Fatman, brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms, on the same subject, they said “It’s always fascinating when a discrepancy occurs between critics and audiences. The cause of these departures can make for some intriguing speculation.”
Taking a closer look at instances where critics have found themselves at odds with their readers, here is a list of several films in recent history which were skewered by the critics but loved and lauded by audiences. Commenting on this list, Eshom and Ian Nelms added, “Amongst the titles you’ve mentioned we find several of our favorite films and that is something we find very interesting.”
Mell Brooks’ 1987 Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs, is a brilliant parody, riddled with endlessly quotable lines such as, “But Yogurt, what if I never see you again? Don’t worry about it! We’ll meet again in Spaceballs 2: The Quest for More Money,” (which, in hindsight, precisely lampoons the entire future of the Star Wars franchise, decades after this film was made).
Spaceballs constantly fiddles with the fourth wall. In one scene, Darth Helmet (Rick Morannis), unsure of what to do next, plays the VHS tape of the movie Spaceballs (in the movie, Spaceballs), fast-forwarding past where he was in the film, to find the next scene.
As in all of Brooks’ best comedies, the highlight isn’t the burlesque plot, but the characters and gags that drive the film. Spaceballs is so heavily seasoned with references — Star Trek, Alien, and Planet of the Apes are all caricatured alongside Star Wars — that it requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate the myriad of disarming subtitles that Brooks surgically ties together.
Spaceballs, in all its juvenile caricaturing of sci-fi, manages to package more character development and life than the vapid Last Jedi, which Rotten Tomatoes critics lauded with a 90% Tomato Meter rating. Spaceballs, on the other hand, was decried with a 56% critic score.
The Boondock Saints (1999)
This lighthearted pastiche of 90s crime finds itself somewhere between the visceral gore of Tarantino’s world and the Irish accented quips of Guy Richie’s. Boondock Saints is a unique spin on the crime genre, with a premise later seen in shows like Dexter. It follows two Irish Catholic brothers who, after losing their favorite pub to the Russian mob, decide to dedicate their lives to vigilantism. Clandestinely hacking down sinners with suppressed firearms, the brothers routinely make pop-culture references to films like James Bond, debating the effectiveness in which they portray sleuth assassinations.
The film differs from formulaic action movies in its unique storytelling perspective: only the prelude to each shootout scene is shown, followed by the police autopsy of its aftermath; you only see the action unfold as it’s shrewdly dissected and inferred by the detective played impeccably by William Dafoe. While the critics universally hated The Boondock Saints — scoring it a paltry 23% on Rotten Tomatoes — it remains an audience favorite with a 91% Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score, as well as a very respectable 7.8/10 on IMDB. For comparison, Reservoir Dogs has an 8.3.
A Knight’s Tale (2001)
A Knight’s Tale is the classic American dream story, set in the medieval world of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. William Thatcher, played brilliantly by Heath Ledger, is born a peon and bound for destitution. Unwilling to accept his feudal destiny, Thatcher sets out to “change his stars,” in a rags-to-riches ascension to knighthood.
A Knight’s Tale sets itself far apart from the litany of medieval era movies with its unconventional soundtrack. Eschewing orchestral compositions that hark back to the 1400s, the film’s score instead culls from the archives of classic rock radio. Starting with the opening track “We Will Rock You,” it features David Bowie, Eric Clapton, and even Sly & The Family Stone, among others. The eccentric pairing pays off, as jousting scenes are invigorated, set to power chords and booming drums, like modern day professional wrestling matches.
Cheesy love clichés aside, A Knight’s Tale is a well-paced and brilliantly acted movie — Paul Bettany, playing Geoffrey Chaucer, delivers a stirring performance as Thatcher’s promoter and hype-man. The film never drags or dulls and has held up strongly over the years. The Audience Score of 79% is far more appropriate for a film of this caliber than the lowly 59% attributed by the esteemed critics.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Wes Anderson’s 2004 follow-up to The Royal Tenenbaums casts Bill Murray as a pessimistic oceanographer on an expedition to hunt down a mysterious shark that killed his partner. Along the way he’s joined by Owen Wilson (of the Wes Anderson Cinematic Universe) who claims to be his son. Murray displays his range as an actor as he grapples with both the loss of a friend, and possible discovery of a lost offspring. The film is further buoyed by superb performances from Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum and William Dafoe.
As in virtually every Wes Anderson film, the soundtrack is a highlight. Diverging from his previous films where he would directly play deep cuts from British Invasion bands in various scenes, in The Life Aquatic, Anderson specifically tailored the music, making it part the story. The soundtrack consists almost entirely of David Bowie, but sung in Portuguese, by Brazilian musician, Seu Jorge who himself is a character in the film, and part of Murray’s crew.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou carries the same storytelling aesthetic that defines Wes Anderson’s unique style of filmmaking. When Bill Murray’s ship is boarded by pirates and his crew held hostage, Anderson directs one of the best scenes of his filmmaking career, as Murray goes on a Rambo-like shooting spree, against the blaring backdrop of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, as he rescues his troop. The Tomatometer critics were not impressed, scoring Life Aquatic a barely passing 56% — audiences, meanwhile, where far more generous with a score of 82%.
Lucky Number Slevin (2006)
Sporting a star-studded cast that features Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Stanley Tucci, Lucy Liu and Josh Hartnett, Lucky Number Slevin is a meticulously crafted revenge plot, following the mass-murder of a compulsive gambler and his family. An exercise in masterful storytelling, the film unfolds like a William Faulkner novel. Key information is initially withheld from the audience, and slowly divulged throughout the film as both flashbacks and through the sharp dialogue between the characters. It’s a fast-paced, violent and flashy thriller that doesn’t have a single dull moment. And yet, the critics panned the film, claiming it was “Trying too hard to be clever in a Pulp Fiction kind of way,” and that it “succumbs to a convoluted plot, overly stylized characters, and dizzying set design.” Audiences glaringly disagreed with the critical consensus, scoring Lucky Number Slevin at a whopping 87% in favorability.
Book of Eli (2010)
Denzel’s Washington’s gritty, post-apocalyptic western from 2010 never ascended as a cult classic or to much critical acclaim, but despite its meager reviews from industry critics, it’s been held in high favor among audiences. Tinged with religious overtones, Book of Eli follows a machete-wielding Washington as a disheveled drifter, meandering across a desolate landscape with a tattered Bible, supposedly the world’s last copy, in hand. In the largely secular landscape of Hollywood, Book of Eli was a rare portrayal of religion in a positive light: the film showed that it can lead to both evil — Garry Oldman’s character, a maniacal warlord with fascistic penchants — or for good — Washington’s character, who believed the Commandments and core tenets of the Bible are the bulwark of a free society. Critics largely scolded the Book of Eli, with a Tomatometer score of just 47%. Audiences, on the other hand, scored the film far more respectably, with 64% — and a 6.9 average score on IMDB.
Ian and Eshom Nelms’ twist on the traditional Christmas movie cast a greying and muscled Mel Gibson as Santa Claus. Sporting a vintage red pickup truck, and spending his free time offloading his vexations into the crevices of a heavy boxing bag and target shooting his 1911 firearm, Gibson was the Santa Claus from the cinematic universe of the much-loved Christmas movie, Die Hard. The Nelms brothers’ western gunslinger Christmas movie weaves an absurdist plot in which a spoiled, prepubescent boy receives coal for Christmas, and in response hires a hitman (superbly portrayed by Walton Goggins) to kill Santa Claus. Fatman is a fresh take on a genre that has become as stale and formulaic as Marvel superhero flicks. The critics’ consensus at Rotten Tomatoes rate the movie at a low 46%, accusing it of “aiming for edgy but mostly missing the mark.” Audiences, on the other hand, were evidently regaled by the lighthearted humor and ridiculousness of the world wherein government austerity results in Santa’s workshop taking up a military contract with the Pentagon and reassigning the elves to manufacture parts for Lockheed Martin fighter jets — they scored the film far higher, at 83%.
I asked Ian and Eshom Nelms about the making of Fatman and their thoughts on the critical reception they’ve received. They explained, “We entered into Fatman knowing we were going to challenge a lot of conventions. It wasn’t going to be a ‘familiar’ Christmas movie and that was by design. But this story was something we had a tremendous passion for. This was the Chris Cringle tale we always wanted to see and that’s what drove us. At the end of the day, as a filmmaker, you have to follow your gut and your heart. You have to make something you care about and believe in. At least, that’s the only way we know how to do it.”
Originally Published on The Daily Wire