Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

The Blurbs

January 6, 2008

The Best Worst Blurbs of 2007

The 10 most egregious misquotes, blurb whores, and other movie-ad sins of 2007.

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.

For the first time, Gelf is unveiling its favorite blurbs of the year. Each one exemplifies a deceptive practice that is near the top of the blurb writer's toolbox. Don't like a review? Rearrange it, or cut out the negativity, or change a word entirely. Or even better, find a non-critic associated with a reputable publication who raved, and use that.

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.

"Hysterically overproduced and surprisingly entertaining!"—Jack Mathews of the New York Daily News, in a quote later reduced to "hysterically entertaining"

What did the ellipsis replace?

Sometimes, it's replaced some seriously negative words.

Live Free or Die Hard (Twentieth Century-Fox)
Metacritic Score: 69/100

Jack Mathews, New York Daily News: "Hysterically … entertaining."
Actual line: "The action in this fast-paced, hysterically overproduced and surprisingly entertaining film is as realistic as a Road Runner cartoon."
Not quoted: "The plot is a kind of queasy exploitation of 9/11. … Mark Bomback's script lacks authenticity …"
The ellipsis makes it possible for an adverb to seem to modify a word it wasn't mean to modify. For more on blurbs about the latest adventure of John McClane, see Gelf's prior Blurbs column.

Faint praise

Even the blurb doesn't sound so hot, when you think about it.

Factory Girl (The Weinstein Company)
Metacritic Score: 45/100

Stephen Holden, The New York Times: "Sienna Miller gives a furious, thrashing performance."
Actual line: "And the kindest thing to be said about this deluxe photo spread of a film is that Sienna Miller's Edie and Guy Pearce's Andy capture their characters' images and body language with relative precision. (Mr. Pearce is much prettier than the real Warhol; if Ms. Miller doesn't have Sedgwick's throaty smoker's voice and aristocratic air, she gives a furious, thrashing performance as a lost little rich girl.)"
The bit about Miller was the only mildly positive part of Holden's review, and it's not even particularly complimentary.

But his prior film was awesome

A critic who dislikes the latest from an artist she generally admires is likely to mention that by way of apology for the pan that follows. The unfazed blurb-writer simply uses those kind words as if they were intended for the current release.

Norbit (DreamWorks SKG)
Metacritic Score: 27/100

Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune: "Eddie Murphy's comic skills are immense."
Actual line: "Murphy's comic skills are immense, and 'Dreamgirls' shows he's a fine straight dramatic actor too. So why does he want to make these huge, belching spectaculars, movies as swollen, monstrous and full of hot air as Rasputia herself—here misdirected by Brian Robbins of 'Good Burger,' 'Varsity Blues' and that lousy 'Shaggy Dog' remake?"
Not quoted: "'Norbit' is a comedy for masochists—an often awful parade of flatulent gags about big butts, sadistic relationships and sexual idiocy, which tries at the same time to be sentimental and romantic. Sheer talent saves it from the dumpster."
It's a classic ruse: The critic says something good about an actor by way of questioning his choice of films, and the ad uses that snippet of praise to suggest the critic wanted to praise the movie.

Less than its parts

An adjective is kind to one aspect of the film; let's pretend it was intended for the whole thing!

Paris, Je T'Aime (First Look International)
Metacritic Score: 66/100

Nick Schager, Slant Magazine: "Romantic, mysterious, hilarious. Thrums with sexy, stylish energy."
Actual line: "Most fine are those that strive to capture the swooningly romantic, mysterious atmosphere that's endeared so many to France's capital…the Coen Brothers' hilarious Metro-as-hell Tuileries…cinematographer par excellence Christopher Doyle's Porte de Choisy, which thrums with the type of sexy, stylish, silly energy that Parisian dreams are made of."
Not quoted: "Typical of such compilations, results tend to vary wildly, though despite roughly an even number of slight successes and minor misfires, the bad nonetheless tends to outweigh the good courtesy of a few preachy and/or ugly episodes that spoil the otherwise light, affectionate mood."
A compilation of 18 shorts lends itself particularly well to blurbing, because as long as some of the shorts are good, some of the words in the review will be good. Schager gave the movie two out of four stars.

The quote is made-up

Don't like a word in the blurb? Change it!

Brand Upon the Brain! (The Film Company/Vitagraph)
Metacritic Score: 79/100

Manohla Dargis, New York Times: "The film casts a mesmerizing spell…delicious, ingenious, often very funny and strangely touching."
Actual line: "…delirious, ingenious, often very funny and strangely touching film"
When it comes to blurbing, there's very little difference between delirious and delicious.

Get me rewrite

Oh, if only critics' editors would consult with blurb writers before hitting "publish"; that would make it unnecessary to dig through a review to find the best stuff among the negativity.

Across the Universe (Columbia)
Metacritic Score: 56/100

Stephen Holden, New York Times: "Extraordinary. Across the Universe captured my heart. I fell in love with this movie. It convinces you that love is all you need. Fantastic… gorgeous… delirious… oh-wow!"
Actual line (emphasis added): "Another extraordinary scene follows Joe to a United States Army induction center… [skip 10 paragraphs backward] Somewhere around its midpoint, 'Across the Universe' captured my heart, and I realized that falling in love with a movie is like falling in love with another person. Imperfections, however glaring, become endearing quirks once you've tumbled. … [skip 15 paragraphs forward] during the time it lasts, the intoxicating passion of Jude and Lucy, both innocents by today's standards, convinces, for a moment, that love is all you need. … [skip 14 paragraphs backward] a fantastic array of puppets, masks and synergistic effects… [skip seven paragraphs forward] A visceral peak arrives with 'Strawberry Fields Forever.' In this gorgeous production number… [skip three paragraphs forward] Bono appears as the acid guru, Dr. Robert, a Ken Kesey-Neal Cassady fusion who sings 'I Am the Walrus' at an acid-drenched party and conducts Jude, Lucy and a roiling band of Merry Pranksters on a delirious bus journey through a rainbow-colored countryside. … [skip one paragraph ahead] its oh-wow aesthetic …"
Taking a review out of context is one thing; cherry-picking, rearranging and rewriting is quite another.

Pure puffery

Is an above-average film one of the best? Only if you define "best" quite broadly.

Year of the Dog (Paramount Vantage)
Metacritic Score: 70/100

[attributed to no one]: One of the best reviewed films of the year!
By Gelf's count, there were 32 films concurrently in theaters that had a higher Metacritic score than this Mike White movie's 71 (since dropped to 70). The one review the ad quoted, from the New York Times, was a modest 70 by Metacritic's count.

When the critic didn't like it

You can always seek out non-critics who wrote articles or features with praise for the film, even if their own publication's critic didn't like the film.

Jimmy Carter Man From Plains (Sony Pictures Classics)
Metacritic Score: 58/100

Hendrik Hertzberg, newyorker.com: "Remarkable. I hope everyone will see it. Carter is a flashpoint for controversy."
Not quoted: "Admittedly, I'm not the world's most objective observer where Carter is concerned; I worked for him as a speechwriter for all but the first month of his Presidency, and I have a lot of respect and affection for him. … I haven't read the book; a friend of mine who has, a Peace Now activist, says it contains enough errors of fact and judgment to make it vulnerable to attack."
This blurb was a rare trifecta: It was by a non-film critic, who's quite biased and didn't do all necessary research for the review.

Blurb whores

When a movie bombs with critics and all else fails, you can turn to Earl Dittman, who apparently likes everything, especially dreck.

Daddy Day Camp (Sony)
Metacritic Score: 13/100

Earl Dittman, Wireless Magazines: "A hilarious comedy for campers of all ages."
When even Enthusiastic Earl only recommended a film for campers, you might guess it earned a metascore of 13, meaning critics registered "extreme dislike or disgust."

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik is a co-founder, contributing editor, and Varsity Letters editor of Gelf. Bialik currently writes the Numbers Guy column for the Wall Street Journal and plays no role in Gelf's day-to-day editorial decisions.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik is a co-founder, contributing editor, and Varsity Letters editor of Gelf. Bialik currently writes the Numbers Guy column for the Wall Street Journal and plays no role in Gelf's day-to-day editorial decisions.

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