The Blurbs

January 29, 2006

Albert Brooks, an Acquired Taste

Our roundup of misleading review blurbs in ads for movies takes on Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, TransAmerica, The New World, and more.

Carl Bialik

Blurb Racket
Paul Antonson
The critic blurb is a staple of arts advertising. Yet if you look behind some blurbs, you'll find quotes out of context, quote whores, and other questionable ad practices. Blurb Racket exposes the truth behind critics blurbs in movie ads from the New York Times. Movie titles link to, which compiles movie reviews in a far-more honest way than do movie ads See the inaugural Blurb Racket column for background and useful links.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (Warner Independent)

Stephen Hunter, Washington Post: "I laughed so hard I thought I'd die."
Not quoted: "It's not very clever, it's not very charming, there are no boffo sight gags, nobody falls down goes boom. It self-terminates. In fact, the movie doesn't so much end as reach a stopping point and limp hurriedly off-screen, like a bad standup chased out by boo birds. ... The funniest thing about Brooks is that he's not that funny. In fact, if he were funnier, he wouldn't be nearly as funny. ... But for one other fellow pilgrim in the whole, almost full joint, I was all alone. Not for you? Maybe not for anybody. But definitely for me."

Kevin Crust, Los Angeles Times: "It possesses Brooks' trademark wry humor and is slyly observant."
Actual line: " 'Looking for Comedy' is not Brooks' funniest film, but it possesses his trademark wry humor and is slyly observant."

Breaking News (Palm)
New York Times: "Director Johnnie To is a master of the game."
Actual line: "Mr. To is a master of the game, and his command supplies pleasure, even when there are no surprises."
Actual date: October 17, 2003.
Beware blurbs that make a general statement about the artist, for they can be lifted from reviews of prior works. Usually, though, this practice is confined to book ads. In this case, Gelf's suspicious-blurb antenna immediately was raised because Manohla Dargis's moderately positive review ("a film filled with terrifically choreographed action and very little on its mind") appeared in the same pages as this ad, seemingly defying the laws of blurb physics. So instead, the ad lifts a passage, more than two years old, from Elvis Mitchell (no longer with the Times) about To's PTU. For quoting from an ancient review for another movie, this ad wins Gelf's Bogus Blurb of the Week award.

TransAmerica (Weinstein Co./IFC)

Gene Shalit, Today: "Excellent."
Actual line: "The excellent Felicity Huffman is a woman trapped in a man's body."
Not quoted: "This film is likely to have a very limited appeal."

The New World (New Line)

Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly: "It communicates Malick's luminous artistic vision of innocence and loss, wildness and order, risks taken and chances lost."
Actual line: "The New World opened briefly in New York and Los Angeles last month to qualify for awards consideration. But between then and its national release now, World creator Terrence Malick has trimmed some 15 minutes for what publicists have positioned as the movie's 'theatrical' version (135 minutes), as opposed to the 'Academy' version (150 minutes). Position away, O ye spinners: The good news for all who are not awards voters is that this newer, shorter World—shorter, anyway, in the category of languid movies over two hours—is that it communicates Malick's luminous artistic vision of innocence and loss, wildness and order, risks taken and chances lost, with more clarity than his first cut."
Not quoted: "magnificent (and magnificently flawed)"
Though Schwarzbaum liked the movie, there's something very wrong with the out-of-context quoting. Let Gelf illustrate with an extreme example: "Moldy Cheese A is delicious compared to Moldy Cheese B." Ad for Moldy Cheese A: "Delicious!" -- Gelf Magazine.

Walk the Line (Fox)

Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal: "James Mangold who directed this superior biographical film manages to find unexpected life and emotional truth in almost every scene."
Actual line: " 'Walk the Line' doesn't transcend all the simplifications of the genre. Johnny's ups and downs are provoked entirely by his relationship with June. When she rejects him he becomes a dissolute monster, onstage and off. When her resistance weakens, his ego strengthens. Ginnifer Goodwin does what she can—quite a lot—with the generic role of Johnny's jealous and unhappy first wife. In almost every scene, though, the director, James Mangold, manages to find unexpected life and emotional if not always biographical truth."
The ad folks overreached here, cherry-picking from what is mostly a rave review and yet not putting in ellipses to indicate they had mangled the prose of Morgenstern, a smart reviewer whose raves resist blurbifying.

Glory Road (Buena Vista)

Gene Shalit, Today: "Thrilling, inspirational and rousing, 'Glory Road' is nothing but net."
Beuna Vista liked Shalit's hoops pun so much, it printed it twice in a quarter-page ad.

Manderlay (IFC)

Stephen Holden, New York Times: "Provocative. A wonderful cast. Asks uncomfortable questions ... that no American filmmaker would dare address so boldly. An important film."
The ad pieces together quotes from two Holden dispatches (here and here) from the New York Film Festival last month.) The fuller review, appearing in the same pages as this ad, mostly echoes the earlier comments, but with some ambivalence about the film: "Chilly ... You must be willing to tolerate the derision and moral arrogance of a snide European intellectual thumbing his nose at American barbarism. ... That might not be such a bad thing given today's climate of national self-congratulation, in which the phrase 'the American people' is wielded as a synonym for collective virtue. But who, beyond the gifted Danish filmmaker's ardent cult of admirers, will want to watch it?"

Spot a misleading media quote in an ad about a movie, show, book, or anything else? E-mail Gelf with your find.

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Article by Carl Bialik

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