Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

The Blurbs

September 12, 2008

The Coens' Emotion-Free, Uneven Thriller

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 'Burn After Reading,' 'The Women,' 'Mister Foe,' 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, 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.

"The result is wildly funny, but just as wildly uneven."—Rolling Stone's Peter Travers on Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading ( Focus Features)
Metacritic Score: 62

David Ansen, Newsweek: "So much fun! Delightful! The scene-stealing Brad Pitt is exuberantly silly. John Malkovich is at the top of his game. George Clooney gives a slyly self-parodying performance."
Actual line: "That's the paradox that makes this parade of folly so much fun: it feels as if everyone involved is having a high old time, and their enthusiasm is contagious. Malkovich, a bald bundle of Brahmin fury, is at the top of his game: he blows fuses like a maestro. But he's given a run for his money by the scene-stealing, exuberantly silly Pitt, who seems liberated by the opportunity to undermine his leading-man image: just watch the way he sucks on a Gatorade, like a breast-feeding infant. Clooney, who can turn into a mugger when he plays broad comedy (I couldn't buy him as a country bumpkin in 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'), gets much further inside this slick philanderer—he's the kind of player who's addicted to making a dashing first impression but runs to the safety of his wife when his conquests start to make demands. It's a slyly self-parodying performance. … 'Burn After Reading' is delightful nonsense."

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "A crazy-quilt comic thriller! … Props to the freshly Oscar®ed Tilda Swinton. It would be no country for movie lovers without the Coens."
Actual line: "Burn After Reading will have No Country converts running for cover. Instead of a subtle walk through Cormac McCarthy territory, the brothers have conjured a crazy-quilt comic thriller that takes on our growing national stupidity in the form of a sex farce. The result is wildly funny, but just as wildly uneven. Such things happen when the Coens wield their wit like a blunt instrument. But if their control falters this time by pressing too hard on the "quirky" button, it's still a small price to pay for their indisputable daring. … Props to the freshly Oscar-ed Swinton for flashing a delicious look of contempt that could freeze lava. … Burn After Reading never does make sense. It simply makes merry mincemeat of an America steeped in vanity, greed and ignorance, a place where selling your soul doesn't amount to much, since everyone's doing it. But why scold the brothers too hard for acting silly? It would be no country for movie lovers without the Coens."
Not quoted: "The body politic and the body beautiful, both built on American fantasies, deserve a mighty whacking, but the Coens' ability to hit the target is frustratingly hit-and-miss. The movie takes flight (watching Pitt and McDormand blackmail Malkovich is primo fun), then dips, along with our expectations. … Detractors who bemoan Coen brothers films for their lack of an emotional core will find evidence here to throw the book at them. You'll uncover more people worth rooting for in the Bush administration."
There are plenty of distortions in this blurb, but Gelf's favorite part is the insertion of ® after Oscar.

Pete Hammond, "Insanely funny! The Coen Brothers have done it again. The dream cast is to die for. George Clooney and Brad Pitt get big laughs. John Malkovich is outrageous."
Not quoted: "…Burn After Reading doesn't hit the heights of a Dr. Strangelove level satire…"

The Women (Picturehouse)
Metacritic Score: 28

Pete Hammond, "Gorgeously entertaining! Tops 'Sex and the City' in every way. Hilarious flat-out fun…see it!"
Actual line: "… nothing more but nothing less than just hilarious, flat-out fun that manages to top Sex and the City in every way imaginable. … This smart remake/update of a 70 year-old play and movie may not win any Oscars, but it turns out to be as gorgeously entertaining as its title indicates. … it's the tight pacing of one amusing sequence after another that makes this little trifle sail by right down to the final sight gag. See it."
Not quoted: "… The Women still has the creakiness of a vehicle that peaked in 1939 …"
Better than Sex and the City: faint praise, indeed. Hammond has a knack for churning out blurb-worthy copy while letting his stars (three out of five) tell a different story.

Mister Foe (Magnolia)
Metacritic Score: 62

Vadim Rizov, Village Voice: "Such unlikely fun!"
Not quoted: "Up until the last psychotic break, Mister Foe coddles its hero's stalker tendencies a bit too much, threatening to transform them into mere Sundance quirk. (The acid of the upcoming In the City of Sylvia, which once and for all takes the romanticism out of obsessive behavior, is missed here.) The whole thing's poised uneasily somewhere between urban fairy tale and actual human psychodrama, never really landing in one place or the other. And those for whom 'hipster' is the ultimate pejorative might want to steer clear: Animated opening credits (courtesy of David Shrigley) are set to Orange Juice, and the soundtrack's filled with an all-star, nearly-all-Scottish cast of very fashionable bands."

Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: "**** Dark, often funny and erotic."
Actual line: "A dark, often funny Oedipal and erotic tale…"
Apparently the word "Oedipal" scared the blurb writers. That's not why this ad wins Gelf's Bogus Blurb of the Week Award, though. It's because Rea gave the movie only three and a half stars. Maybe there was a tiny ½ in the ad that didn't get printed, but if so it's infinitesimal.

David Fear, Time Out New York: "**** Uniquely twisted."
Actual line: "It's a pity the third act takes a pop-therapeutic nosedive, yet for most of its running time, Mister Foe works its maladjusted mojo into something truly unsettling and uniquely twisted."
Time Out really did give this flick four stars—out of six."

Towelhead (Warner Independent)
Metacritic Score: 56

New York Daily News: "…American Beauty meets Juno."
That's from a preview. The review gave the film one star, and called it "uncomfortably single-minded."

Variety: "Provocative."
Actual line: "Alan Ball goes one for two in his feature helming debut, hitting a double with his provocative script but fouling out with his directing in 'Towelhead.' "

Ping Pong Playa (IFC)
Metacritic Score: 55

Nathan Lee, New York Times: "Comedy gold… A quick-witted picture that's fast on its feet … A lot of fresh and funny insights."
Not quoted: "… formulaic plot …"

A Secret (Strand Releasing)
Metacritic Score: 72

Darrell Hartman, New York Sun: "Mesmerizing!"
Actual line: " 'A Secret,' the French director Claude Miller's new film, opens with a mesmerizing little scene set in the summer of 1955."
Not quoted: "… more jumbled than it needs to be. At times, the film, which opens Friday at IFC Center, feels like an incomplete adaptation of the autobiographical novel by Philippe Grimbert on which it is based, a fussy trimming of the book's layered narrative, rather than a true distillation of it."
The scene is mesmerizing; not necessarily the whole film.

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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