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The Blurbs

March 27, 2009

'Too Smart for Its Own Good'

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 'Duplicity,' 'I Love You, Man,' 'Monsters vs. Aliens,' 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.

"Duplicity goes down as too smart for its own good."— Rolling Stone's Peter Travers

Duplicity (Universal)
Metacritic Score: 69

Lou Lumenick, New York Post: "A whip-smart, sexy and delightfully romantic thriller."
Actual line: "A whip-smart, sexy and delightfully twisty romantic thriller."
Not quoted: "Some of my colleagues think 'Duplicity,' which requires audiences to pay close attention, may be too smart for the masses. I sure hope not. They'd be missing a helluva treat."
What's wrong with "twisty"? Would the masses not like that word?

Todd McCarthy, Variety: "Sophisticated, smart and dazzling. Writer-director Tony Gilroy's effervescent, intricately plotted puzzler proves in every way superior to his 2007 success 'Michael Clayton.' "
Not quoted: "The twisty, time jumping narrative forces viewers to keep on their toes, and it could well be that 'Duplicity' is too smart for its own good as far as the popcorn masses are concerned."
Those poor, maligned masses. And poor Gilroy, whose former film is smacked down in an ad for his present one.

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "Fun! Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are at the top of their game."
Actual line: "Duplicity makes demands that the payoff doesn't quite justify, but getting there actually is half the fun."
Not quoted: "Given the assault of devilishly clever plot twists that buzz-bomb your brain like a two-hour binge of quad-shot lattes, Duplicity goes down as too smart for its own good. … in Duplicity, Gilroy never meets a plot point he can't overcomplicate."
Travers has mixed feelings about having to think so much, but his blurb still tops the ad for this mostly well-reviewed film.

I Love You, Man
I Love You, Man (DreamWorks)
Metacritic Score: 71

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: "You feel good watching 'I Love You, Man.' It's just plain funny."
Actual line: " 'I Love You, Man' is, above all, just plain funny. It's funny with some dumb physical humor, yes, and some gross-out jokes apparently necessary to all buddy movies, but also funny in observations, dialogue, physical behavior and Sydney Fife's observations as a people-watcher. I heard a lot of real laughter from a preview audience, not the perfunctory laughter at manufactured payoffs. You feel good watching the movie. That's what comedies are for, right?"
Not quoted: "Because this is a rom-com, various obligatory scenes are necessary; Peter goes shopping for a best friend on some man dates with guys met on the Internet, with predictable results. The movie feels locked into formula until the appearance of Sydney…"

Claudia Puig, USA Today: " 'I Love You, Man' is one bromantic joy ride."
Not quoted: "The film starts off slowly … There are ribald jokes and gross-out episodes …"

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: "Hugely enjoyable. It's sweet, sweet hanging."
Actual line: "It's the variations that Rudd and Segel spin on this theme that make the movie hugely enjoyable. … The movie goes soft in its final stages, but Rudd and Segel keep it real. 'Sweet, sweet hangin',' says Peter of knowing Sydney. The same goes for the movie."
Not quoted: "Here's the thing about comedies: Even when the script is freighted with formula, the right actors can keep it afloat, even airborne. That's where I Love You, Man really lucks out."
For some reason the ad folks preferred "hanging" to "hangin'," even if the screenwriters didn't.

Monsters vs. Aliens
Monsters vs. Aliens (DreamWorks)
Metacritic Score: 55

Pete Hammond, "Monstrous laughs."
Not quoted: "Like any kid-oriented comic 'toon today, the action can be a bit too frenetic and Monsters vs. Aliens piles a lot of it on in its trim 95 minutes."

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "****"
Big surprise.

Knowing (Summit Entertainment)
Metacritic Score: 41

Tony Toscano, Talking Pictures: "Chilling."
Not quoted: "You know the moment in a meeting when a film is pitched and the studio says 'We'll buy it!' And the pitch session is over. As the writer is walking out an executive tells him 'Oh by the way… the ending has got to be changed—they won't understand it in the belt land…' or something to that effect? I think that's what happened here. As the ending of this film (No Spoiler Here) unfolded with every cheap formulaic TV twist, I actually thought to myself 'What happened to the first film I was watching?' "
What happened to the review I thought I was going to read because it was blurbed in the ad? It ended with a D+ grade. For passing this off as praise, this ad wins Gelf's Bogus Blurb of the Week Award.

Earl Dittman, Wireless Magazines: "Heart-stopping."
Earl's presence is rarely the sign of a good film.

Race to Witch Mountain
Race to Witch Mountain (Disney)
Metacritic Score: 52

Pete Hammond, "A fun, heart-racing adventure … 'Race to Witch Mountain' has it all!"
Not quoted: "There's no complexity in sight, and the story isn't given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes."
It appears that the film has it all, except for complexity, exposition and plot development, that is.

Tony Toscano, Talking Pictures: "Terrific!"
Not quoted: "… there are a few stalls in the story for which the film lost a point …"

For more on the film's blurbs, see the previous Blurbs column.

Sunshine Cleaning
Sunshine Cleaning (Overture)
Metacritic Score: 61

Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal: "You'll miss out if you don't see this surprising movie!"
Not quoted: "[Little Miss Sunshine's] contrivances, however numerous, seemed more organic than those in the new one—most flagrantly a melodramatic scene involving Norah and a railroad trestle, and an underlying emotional structure that springs, somewhat schematically, from events in the sisters' childhood."

For more on the film's blurbs, see the previous Blurbs column.

Hunger (IFC)
Metacritic Score: 78

David Edelstein, New York Magazine: "A triumph."
Actual line: "It's a triumph—of masochistic literal-mindedness."

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "Audacious and impressive…beautiful."
Actual line: "… this long stretch of talk is in some ways Mr. McQueen's most audacious and impressive cinematic gambit. … the fruit of his inquiry is both horrifying and, strange to say, beautiful."
Not quoted: "The brutality in the film is pervasive and often stomach turningly graphic, but what is perhaps most unnerving is the tact, patience and care with which Mr. McQueen depicts its causes and effects. … haunting, often grueling …"

Skills Like This
Skills Like This (Shadow Distribution)
Metacritic Score: 48

Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: "Eye-catching direction!"
Actual line: "Over the course of three tumultuous days, the fallout from this awkward spree will, as expected, reconfigure each character's life. Yet the offbeat chemistry of the cast, along with Monty Miranda's eye-catching direction (he knows when to move a camera and, more important, when to hold still) make all the difference: this is a movie that tries hard to skirt the obvious."
Not quoted: "… gazes indulgently on 20-something aimlessness and the comfort of assigned roles."

Andrew O'Hehir, Salon: "Cheerfully anarchic… indescribably genuine!"
Not quoted: "… there's nothing breathtaking and new …"

The Country Teacher
The Country Teacher (Negativ)
Metacritic Score: N/A

Alissa Simon, Variety: "Beautifully crafted."
Not quoted: "Although self-hating homosexuals and the healing power of nature constitute hoary cliches, 'A Country Teacher' mostly manages to make something sincere and poignant out of them. While unlikely to match the international success of his previous outing, 'Something Like Happiness,' it should click with fests and Euros webs."

Ella Taylor, Village Voice: "Undeniably fresh."
Not quoted: "… this sweetly ingenuous film, written and directed by Bohdan Sláma, is a lot less sentimental about cows and flowers than it is about its human protagonists, who fall domino-like in love with churls who won't love them back. Zuzana Bydovská is very good as the mother of a sullenly beautiful boy with whom the teacher falls in love, but Pavel Lika plays the hapless pedagogue with a long-faced saintliness that leads us to hope in vain for situation comedy. Instead, following one truly risky scene, we get more natural rebirth, and the damp discovery that romantic love may be for the birds, but people will always need people."
It's undeniable that when a review notes that something good about a film is undeniable, then something else is deniable.

Guest of Cindy Sherman
Guest of Cindy Sherman (Trela Media)
Metacritic Score: 71

Ella Taylor, Village Voice: "Highly entertaining."
Not quoted: "… probably one-sided view of the artist herself … If you're looking for fresh insights into her bracing art, you'll need to go straight to the work."

New York Magazine: "An intimate, hypnotic reflection on the alienating mixture of love and celebrity."
This review is a curious case. The Google cache of New York's review contains this praise, but the review itself is mixed, and ends with, "there's no story, not even insight into what made this unlikely couple click. Remove the boldface names and there's no movie; that center does not hold."

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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