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The Blurbs

January 2, 2009

The Best Worst Blurbs of 2008

The 10 most egregious misquotes, blurb whores, and other movie-ad sins of 2008.

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 second straight year, Gelf is unveiling its favorite blurbs of the year (see our favorites from 2007). 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, 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.

"…a time and place when Negroes were being lynched."—Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern on The Great Debaters

PC Alert

Political correctness trumps accuracy.

The Great Debaters (Weinstein Co.)
Metacritic Score: 65

Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal: "A greatly affecting movie. The actors playing the debaters are so likable and admirable that you'd be rooting for them even if they weren't poor, educationally challenged and living in a time and place when African Americans were being lynched. (I'm not sure which is more chilling, a scene in which the team comes upon the scene of a lynching, or one in which Mr. Tolson explains the derivation of the word.)"
Actual line: " 'The Great Debaters' isn't a great title, but it's a greatly affecting movie. …The actors playing the debaters are so likable and admirable that you'd be rooting for these ardent young strivers even if they weren't poly-underdogs— poor, educationally challenged and living in a time and place when Negroes were being lynched. (I'm not sure which is more chilling, a scene in which the team comes upon the scene of a lynching, or one in which Mr. Tolson explains the derivation of the word.)"
Not quoted: "The film has its faults: a cheerful unconcern with anachronisms, a surfeit of plot, mostly involving Mr. Tolson's double life as an academic and a left-wing farm labor organizer."
Gelf's take: Most interesting in this edited blurb was the replacement of "Negroes" with "African Americans"; it seems the critic was going for contemporary verisimilitude, but the blurb writers were scared of the dated term. This review stands out for its mix of misguided political correctness and grammatically incorrect quoting (sans ellipses).

The Unreviews

If the review is unkind, perhaps the adjacent news article isn't.

Bolt (Disney)
Metacritic Score: 68

Jamie Portman, Canwest News Service: "A revolutionary breakthrough in 3-D."
Actual line: "[Bolt] is being celebrated at the studio as a revolutionary breakthrough in two areas—computer animation technology and digital 3-D."
Gelf's take: We bet the studio is also celebrating the movie as the best thing since animated bread, but that doesn't make it so. This is from a news article, not a review, by the way.

Righteous Kill
Or perhaps the headline will help.

Righteous Kill (Overture)
Metacritic Score: 36

Richard Corliss, Time: "De Niro and Pacino, reHEATed."
Not quoted: "That the movie proves to be a nonevent has something to do with the clichés accruing around the cop genre (where the killer is always a cop), and more to do with the passing of time. …this is a film that missed its moment. Instead of the meeting of maestros at the top of their form, Righteous Kill has the feeling of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds facing off for the first time in an exhibition game. It's like Old Timers' Day at the Motion Picture Home. …the camera is a remorseless appraiser of advancing age."
Gelf's take: This blurb quotes the headline from a less-than-flattering review.

27 Dresses
Or even the photo caption.

27 Dresses (Fox)
Metacritic Score: 47

Entertainment Weekly: "Katherine Heigl glows!"
Actual line: "Katherine Heigl glows, but 27 Dresses' formulaic romantic comedy stumbles on the way to the altar."
Gelf's take: This is one of those rare blurbs culled from a photo caption.

Misplaced Modifiers

Fancy an adjective? Snatch it—even if it wasn't being used to describe the film itself.

Metacritic Score: 68

Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly: "Striking!"
Actual line: "The cinematography is striking. The music is mesmerizing. And the triumph of the underdog team against all odds is extra satisfying, because the featured participants at Uganda's national music competition are war-scarred orphans who live in a teeming camp. But it's difficult to calm my tremor of unease about the filming process: For War Dance, white American filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine selected three particular children, then made a pretty establishing shot after which each describes hell, sometimes on the very spot where a parent was hacked to pieces before the child's eyes."
Gelf's take: The blurb applies "striking" to the whole film, thereby skipping the reviewer's "tremor of unease."

Fools Gold
John Doe, Film Critic

High praise from an obscure, or possibly fictional, critic.

Fool's Gold (Warner Bros.)
Metacritic Score:29

Heather Newgen, "The first great romantic comedy of the year."
Gelf's take: We were unable to find Newgen's review of the film online, but we did come across this post on the site's forums:

93Civic: I saw a full page color ad in the newspaper on Friday for Fool's Gold that listed Heather Newgen of as loving the movie and breathless (sic) exclaiming, "Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey light up the big screen in the first great romantic comedy of the year."
First of all, who is Heather Newgen and will she ever be allowed to review a movie again considering she was the only "critic" in America who gave it a favorable review?
We have many intelligent and noteworthy movie viewers among us and I hate to see Heather Newgen ruin our great reputation as a movie expert community.

Definitely, Maybe

Sometimes a blurb just mangles the intent of the original review beyond recognition.

Definitely, Maybe (Universal)
Metacritic Score: 59

A.O. Scott, The New York Times: "A sparkling comic enchantment. Viewers walk away with our faith in soul mates and happy endings confirmed."
Actual line: "How do you preserve the fairy-tale elements of the genre—the beguiling fantasy of permanent bliss—in the face of certain prosaic and unavoidable facts? In the real world, after all, people divorce, sleep around, fall in love too soon, too late or too often.
It’s a mess, and a movie like this one has to acknowledge the mess without falling into it, in which case it would be a sad little melodrama rather than a sparkling comic enchantment. In spite of everything, viewers, like Maya, have to walk away with our faith in soul mates and happy endings confirmed, rather than compromised or shattered.
So Will decides to tell Maya a slightly edited, PG-13 version of the story of his life and loves before she was born. At first the ending seems predictable enough: after various false starts and digressions, he will finally meet and marry her mommy. But neither the girl nor the audience knows which of the women his younger self meets the mother will turn out to be. (And for a while we forget that, after their happy ending, Mom and Dad will end up divorced.)
Not quoted: While Definitely, Maybe is hardly perfect, it navigates the choppy waters of modern courtship with commendable, understated honesty.
Gelf's take: We wish we could say the same about the way the blurb writers navigated the nuanced review by Scott. Instead, they simply took Scott's generic description of the romantic comedy genre and turned it into a blurb for the film.

Premature Ejaculation

Sometimes the needs of blurb writers and the intent of reviewers converge, for instance, when the intent of the reviewer is to be the first one to declare a mediocre movie the best of a certain time period.

Penelope (Summit)
Metacritic Score: 48

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "Wonderful! Delightful! Enchanting! 'Penelope' is the most charming and irresistibly romantic movie you'll likely see all year. I loved it."
Gelf's take: Edwards previously has declared movies the "___ of the year" in March, June, June again, July, July again, and August. (And that's just while Gelf has been counting; in 2004, Variety noted three premature ejaculations.) One senses Edwards is a little uncomfortable handing out end-of-year awards in February these days by his insertion of the caveat, "likely."

Funny Games
The Miss Cleo Award

The kindest words might come from a preview of a film, written before the reviewer or anyone else had seen it.

Funny Games (Warner Independent)
Metacritic Score: 41

The Boston Globe: "Fasten your seatbelts—This director doesn't play nice, fair or easy."
Gelf's take: This quote comes from critic Ty Burr's preview of the film several months before he had even seen it. Once he did watch it, he deemed it "infuriating and moot."

Not What They Seem

The blurb says quite the opposite of what the critic said.

Leatherheads (Universal)
Metacritic Score: 56

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "Clooney throws us a rowdy party of a movie."
Actual line: "Clooney throws us a rowdy party of a movie. Or does he? Leatherheads could be subtitled We Only Kill the Things We Love."
Not quoted: "… the screenwriters aren't yet in the pro leagues with dialogue."
Gelf's take: This blurb quotes the review accurately. Or does it?

— Michael Gluckstadt contributed to this column.

Carl Bialik

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

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- The Blurbs
- posted on Sep 12, 11

"The Great Debaters" blurb does nothing to alter the reviewer's statement about the film itself. That film is better than most of the films on this list and does not deserve to be included amongst the more egregious cases of blurb fraud.

As for "War/Dance", saying the cinematography is striking *is* commenting on the film...cinematography is a key element in any film. It is a case of cherry-picking an adjective and they should have just said "The cinematography is striking", but it's not as completely dishonest as many of the other examples here (the reviewer's "unease" is not the same as expressing dislike, which was a feeling several reviewers had for the films listed here and were then completely misquoted).

- The Blurbs
- posted on Feb 18, 12

Metacritic doesn't mean anything.

Article by Carl Bialik

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

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