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The Blurbs

April 25, 2008

Forgetting 'Sarah Marshall's Predecessors

In this week's edition of The Blurbs—the feature in which we take a close look at those critic blurbs that are a fixture of ads for movies—see breakdowns of blurbs for 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall,' 'The Visitor,' 'Standard Operating Procedure,' and more.

Carl Bialik

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 metacritic.com, 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, and find out what critics think of the racket here.

"… very funny, very chewy, partially undercooked comedy." —Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum on "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Universal)
Metacritic Score: 67

A banner atop the ad: "Who would have thought a raunchy comedy would be the best reviewed movie of the year*"
[At bottom of ad, in small font:] "*Of all wide-release movies this year"
The omission of a question mark, or any punctuation, at the end of the would-be question may have been a Freudian slip; according to Metacritic, Horton Hears a Who!, released last month, outscores Sarah Marshall, 71-67. (Rotten Tomatoes has Sarah Marshall at 17th overall this year, ahead of Horton but behind a couple of concert films that could be considered wide releases.) Incidentally, those Metacritic scores indicate how bad the year's movies have been; no wide-release film from this year cracks the site's all-time Top 200.

Claudia Puig, USA Today: "Full of laughs. The subject matter is racy, the laughs rowdy. There's an unmistakably gentle heart beating staunchly beneath the raunch."
Actual line: "Is it as funny as Knocked Up or Superbad? The answer is not quite, but it's still full of laughs. … As one might expect from a movie with the [Judd] Apatow stamp, the subject matter is racy, the laughs rowdy and the dialogue ribald. But there's an unmistakably gentle heart beating staunchly beneath the raunch."
Not quoted: "The good-natured story and likable characters offset the comedy's unevenness, particularly its lagging final half hour. … Bell, whose comic timing was evident in TV's Veronica Mars, doesn't fare quite as well here. It's really the guys' movie, unlike Knocked Up, where Katherine Heigl and Leslie Mann were often as funny as their male counterparts. Mila Kunis plays Rachel, Peter's new love interest, and she comes across as pleasant but not particularly humorous. Both she and Sarah are stock Hollywood girlfriend figures—one is laid-back and the other high-maintenance—but neither is a fully formed character."

Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly: "Very funny!"
Actual line: "… very funny, very chewy, partially undercooked comedy."
Not quoted: "For better, and sometimes for worse, first-time director Nicholas Stoller … lets the action shamble along …"

David Ansen, Newsweek: "No pain, no comic gain. 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall' sticks with you, unlike so many disposable romps, because you can sense the laughs are built on hard-earned personal experience."
Actual line: "If 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall' doesn't reach the inspired heights of 'Knocked Up' or 'Superbad,' it runs a very respectable second. And it sticks with you, unlike so many disposable romps, because you can sense the laughs are built on hard-earned personal experience. Who doesn't know what it feels like to get dumped? Segel and Stoller obviously subscribe to the Apatow credo: no pain, no comic gain."

The Visitor (Overture)
Metacritic Score: 79

A banner atop the ad: "Come experience the best reviewed film of the year"
Yet another film trying, and failing, to find a claim that rests on this year's mostly mediocre crop of films. This film's Metacritic score ranks it behind at least seven films released this year; it's ninth on Rotten Tomatoes' list. For more deconstruction of Visitor blurbs, see the previous column.

Smart People (Miramax)
Metacritic Score: 57

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "The great virtue of 'Smart People' is attributable to Noam Murro's easy-going direction and the excellent script by Mark Jude Poirier."
Actual line: "The excellent script for 'Smart People' is the work of Mark Jude Poirier, a fiction writer who has clearly spent enough time around English departments to have studied the tribal ways of the literary professoriate with ethnographic rigor. The scenes of Lawrence in the classroom or in department meetings are among the most frighteningly, comically accurate such moments I have ever seen on film. That may sound like a minor accomplishment, but the great virtue of 'Smart People,' attributable to Noam Murro's easygoing direction as well as to Mr. Poirier's wandering screenplay, lies in its general preference for small insights over grand revelations. There is a fairly busy plot, and some of its developments—an unplanned pregnancy, a flicker of quasi-incestuous sexual interest, the acceptance of a poem by The New Yorker—clatter onto the screen like carelessly flung darts. But to a greater extent than in most comedies, the narrative seems more like background or scaffolding than like the engine that drives the characters, who are propelled instead by their own colliding, confusing, idiosyncratic energies."
This is a tricky one. Yes, the review called Poirier's script "excellent"—but not in the sentence being quoted. Also, the phrase about "attributable" is set off by commas, not by an "is" as in the blurb, and leads to the bit about "small insights over grand revelations," which was cut from the blurb. This aggressive massaging earns this ad Gelf's Bogus Blurb of the Week Award.

Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal: "Genuinely witty & smart."
Actual line: "With a title like 'Smart People,' a movie should be, at a minimum, reasonably bright. This one is unreasonably bright; it passes the IQ test with flying colors. And intelligence plus genuine wit aren't its only distinctions (as if they were in such plentiful supply these days that we could dismiss them)."
This blurb wasn't changed as much as the one above, but certainly a lot was condensed into a little. This blurb's writers may have been a little too smart for their own good.

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: "A sharp comedy!"
Actual line: "… a small, sharp, and pleasingly literate comedy …"
Not quoted: "Smart People, unlike Sideways or The Savages, has a plot that's a little too rote. … Most of these story arcs are functional, rather than urgent, and I do wish the movie had more scenes set inside the trenches of academia."

Rex Reed, New York Observer: "I loved this movie! Ellen Page, Sarah Jessica Parker, Dennis Quaid and Thomas Haden Church are superb."
Not quoted: "I have decided the lukewarm reception a fine, witty and intelligent new film called Smart People has been getting is just an accident of bad timing and critical exhaustion. We waste so much time evaluating stinkers that sometimes we overlook the real deals when they come along. Smart People is the real deal."
Gelf went looking for this review in the last Blurbs column, and now we've found it. It really is that big a rave. Still, worth noting: In the ad two weeks ago, the actors were listed in this order: Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page and Thomas Haden Church. This week, it's: Ellen Page, Sarah Jessica Parker, Dennis Quaid and Thomas Haden Church. That's the order in which they're listed in a paragraph extolling their "terrific" acting—"superb" never appeared.

Forbidden Kingdom (Lionsgate)
Metacritic Score: 57

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "Dazzling!"
Actual line: "There is both a surfeit of motives and a dearth of momentum driving the narrative of 'The Forbidden Kingdom,' which often drags in the expository sections between set pieces. But many of the set pieces are dazzling, even if, by now, audiences may be a bit jaded by high-flying wire work and artful blends of computer-generated imagery and traditional production design."
Not quoted: "… a plot that is at times so convoluted as to teeter on the brink of incomprehensibility … If you've never seen a movie like this, it might satisfy your curiosity …"

David Edelstein, New York Magazine: "Great fun!"
Actual line: "Once past the clunky prologue, the film is great fun …"

Rafer Guzmán, Newsday: "Plenty of eye-popping moments!"
Actual line: " 'The Forbidden Kingdom' makes up for its flaws with plenty of eye-popping moments."
Not quoted: "… the action is slowed down for younger eyes, mostly bloodless and often played for laughs. The story is thin as a bamboo reed, but it works. … Based on Chinese legend, the script, by John Fusco, earns points for creative sourcing, if not originality."

88 Minutes (Sony)
Metacritic Score: 17

Andrew Sarris, New York Observer: "Pacino still sizzles!"
Not quoted: "… a noirish mystery with more red herrings than are to be found at a fishmonger's convention. That is to say that even when the mystery is finally solved, many loose ends are left dangling, which is not at all unusual in this period of catering to the youth market's craving for chaotic confusion."

Standard Operating Procedure (Sony)
Metacritic Score: 68

David Edelstein, New York Magazine: "A riveting narrative. Morris has hold of a monster subject, one in which politics and art bleed together."
Not quoted: "I'm not sure Morris clinches his case, but I'm not sure he wants to…It's possible that Morris errs on the side of compassion. … Special Agent Brent Pack, who analyzed the photos and sent many of Morris's subjects to military prison, says, 'A picture is worth a thousand words.' Okay, maybe. But which words? Whose words?"

Then She Found Me (THINKFilm)
Metacritic Score: 54

Entertainment Weekly: "Hunt's performance is terrific!"
Actual line: "Novelist Salman Rushdie's cameo as a doctor is a weird distraction, but Hunt's performance is terrific and far more nuanced than her Oscar-winning turn in As Good as It Gets."
Not quoted: "…the casting proves a little bit too predictable…"

Joe Leydon, Variety: "Extremely funny!"
Actual line: "Pic often is extremely funny, but the comedy always remains rooted in sharply and warmly observed reality."
Not quoted: "… there's a least one instance of casting as a kind of sight gag—Salman Rushdie (yes, that Salman Rushdie) cameos as a bemused obstetrician … pic will require slow rollout, savvy marketing and high-profile tub-thumping by its director-star to generate awareness and realize potential."
This review really is quite positive; Gelf just loves quoting Variety's industry-speak.

Rex Reed, New York Observer: "Funny and touching!"
Not quoted: "O.K., it's not Barbara Stanwyck in No Man of Her Own or even Lucille Ball in Yours, Mine and Ours."

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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