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Grand Larson-y: Nick Swardson and Being Critical of Comedies…

This type of thing happens every once in a while, to the point where it’s almost not really news at all. Kevin Smith took to twitter to lambast critics of his (admittedly) disappointing Cop Out, and studios have a habit of releasing potentially divisive films around critics (look at how they sold G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra). Nick Swardson, who has only come to my attention of late with a solid supporting role in the perfectly adequate but unexceptional 30 Minutes or Less, has taken to lashing out at the critics who didn’t respond especially favourably to Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star. He suggests:

I knew the critics were going to bury us. It was a softball. They were waiting, waiting to hate that movie. It’s kind of funny that they get their rocks off on reviews like that. They review The King’s Speech, then they review Bucky Larson.

It’s a lot of work and a lot of reviewers aren’t going into that movie to like it. They don’t want to like it. None of those reviewers was psyched to see Bucky Larson and laugh. They go in with the mentality, fuck these guys for making another movie. They go in there to kind of headhunt. It makes me laugh because it’s just so embarrassing. It makes them look like such morons. You can’t review Avatar then review Bucky Larson. Comedy is so subjective, you know what I mean? To sit there and technically pick it apart is so stupid. We’ve never made movies for critics, so we could give a f***.

There’s obviously more than a hint of bitterness (the last line is very much “well, we don’t care what they think!”), but does Swardson have a point about the difficulty of reviewing comedies?

Bucky bites back...

I’ve argued here before that I find they “you just don’t get it” argument that’s frequently trotted out about poorly-reviewed films to be almost offensively patronising. It’s the one line that can be inserted into almost any argument on the quality of any film as a trump card. “You just don’t get it,” ends the debate. It’s seldom accompanied with an explanation, and there’s no reply except “I did”, which runs the risk of turning the discussion into a schoolyard shouting match. “Nah-ha!” is countered with “Yah-ha!” which is met with “Nah-ha!” ad infinitum.

More than that, though, it’s a fairly direct insult against the critic or the film viewer in question – and I can’t stand it when debates are reduced to ad hominem attacks. It implies that the viewer lacks the mental capacity to properly contextualise what they’ve seen, in the most smug and arrogant manner possible. “It’s not your fault you don’t understand,”it seems to assert, with the broadest grin possible. The only way it could feel worse is if the person in question leaned in to pat you on the head while saying it. It’s the ridiculous logic that defends bad action movies because they’re clearly intended to be enjoyed on a level beyond the comprehension of us cold and rational critical robots.

Critiquing the critics...

Of course critics don’t have an in-depth understanding of everything under the sun, and of course it’s unlikely that too many reviewers of Green Lantern had read Secret Origin, just as it’s unlikely a significant proportion of the people who saw The Dark Knight had ever even heard of The Long Halloween. However, critics were smart enough to identify that one was a good movie and the other was… not. Because even if you lack a complete knowledge of a niche market, critics retain basic comprehension skills. I’m not even being condescending here – most viewers tend to have those same skills as well, which is why it’s (relatively) rare to see that vast a difference between CineScores and critical response, even if there’s generally a bigger gap between box office and critical reception.

And Swardson has the vaguest hint of a point at the core of his rant. Comedies are arguable the most subjective of film genres. While you can make the argument that good set design and performances are universal, humour varies wildly from person to person. I might scoff at something my friends find side-splittingly hilarious, while I might not be able to control my fits of laughter at a pun that made the guy beside moan in something approaching pain. I’d make the argument that comedies are one of the relatively few genres where the audience contributes phenomenally to the individual experience – with horror the other genre where it could almost seem like a viewer is seeing two different films depending on the audience.

It's a war out there...

I’ll admit to feeling a hint of uncertainty as I review a comedy, if only because it is so subjective and there’s a significant margin of error. I reckon that if you asked people to pick their favourite comedy, you’d find the answers more divisive than in any other genre. For example, I was never too fond of Space Balls, despite the high esteem many hold for it. And I’m sure there are millions of people who can’t stand Tropic Thunder or Zoolander. So I’ll concede that Swardson’s logic might be a little bit sound.

On the other hand, the variance – while probably larger than any other genre – isn’t so great that it completely distinguishes the point of any criticism. After all, Bucky Larson holds an impressive 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, which indicates that not one of hundreds of critics thought the film was “average”, let alone “good” or “great.” (Though, to be honest, only 35 reviewed it.) It requires a massive suspension of disbelief to assume that every single critic would just have a sense of humour so slightly off the mainstream that they couldn’t find a significant redeeming feature. That’s pretty unforgiving right there, and IMDb – a far more populist measure – still only ranks the film at 2.1/10. Sometimes, when you hear hoofbeats and everybody else in the world is saying “horse”, you have to admit that it might be a horse.

Dancing on strings...

You can’t even argue it’s a taste thing – that the movie suffered from some form of prejudice because it was about pornography. After all, Team America: World Police, a movie featuring perhaps the most graphic puppet sex scene in a mainstream film, managed an impressive average of 76%, despite being incredibly crass and offensive. For the record, I love it – it’s one of the best films of the last decade, but mileage will vary. I think that, when it comes to comedy, it’s easier to argue that some people will be more negative than others – but it doesn’t mean that everybody will hate an otherwise good film. It’s just as much a class thing to suggest that critics hated it because they liked The King’s Speech. Critics also liked Rise of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: First Class, and they’re hardly prestigious stiff-upper-lip artsy films.

Swardson does make another point – he suggests that critics had made up their minds before they saw the film. Again, it’s an argument with a hint of sense. After all, as much as we might objectively try to give each film the very best opportunity to impress us, there’s no denying that we can’t completely drop all our predispositions and ideas. I couldn’t help but hear the critical mauling that Cars 2 was receiving stateside, and get disheartened, while good buzz for Drive got me excited. I can’t help these things, they’re just the way the internet works – but I think it’s unfair to suggest that every critic seeing the movie wanted to hate it. I think anybody who takes their writing seriously tries to keep their preconceptions in check, as much as possible.

Critics couldn't resist his magnetic personality...

And, to be honest, these are people who work reviewing movies. These are the people who write books on cinema, who blog about cinema, who think of nothing but cinema. In short, these are people who love cinema and want to love cinema. They want to be impressed – I know that I do, and I always want to see the best in a film, because it’s the product of work. Nobody wakes up in the morning and looks forward to wasting ninety-minutes in a darkened room being subjected to torture – experience may have made them cynical, but I think most reviewers do it because they want to enjoy films.

Again, all the preconception arguments against Bucky Larson can easily be pointed at any number of critical darling. Who honestly thought that Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be as great as it was, based on experience? Or that Fright Night was going to be as solidly entertaining as it ultimately turned out to be? Those are films that suffered the same sort of preconceptions that Swardson accuses critics of levelling at Bucky Larson – they’re “light” or they’re “not artsy” or they’re “stupid”– and managed to come out of the gates with an impressive showing that BuckyLarson simply couldn’t manage.

Critics went ape for Caesar...

I hate it when artists attack critics based on exactly the sort of stupid preconceptions they accuse the critics of having in the first place. The stupid and juvenile and complete waste of time zero-budget comedy film is just as much a cliché as the cold and bitter critic sniping at the world from behind a keyboard. Some critics do seem aggressive and short-sighted, but then some comedies are just not funny. Making arguments in broad generalisations doesn’t convince anyone. Sometimes it isn’t the world that’s wrong.

4 Responses

  1. excellent article!

  2. Apart from the fact that he’s not particularly funny, Swardson’s also kind of a huge moron. In fact he sounds an awful lot like Tony Hawk in the wake of the release of Ride. Exquisite.

    Comedy is sort of a prickly subject, though, because comedy is more subjective than any other genre out there. The things that make one person laugh just cannot have the same effect on another person. I mean, I’m 27 and I still find a good fart joke absolutely hysterical, though I also laughed harder at The Trip than any other movie I’ve seen this year. What makes us laugh individually is much more difficult to pin down than, say, what makes us cry. So comedy’s kind of a tough thing to approach as a critic.

    On the one hand, yes, we all go into movies with preconceived notions of their quality, but it’s kind of an insubstantial thing to say that critics walked into Bucky Larson actively wanting to hate it. I can say that for myself I’d probably have just that attitude– because Swardson, again, is to comedy what cyanide is to being alive– but I wouldn’t apply that generalization to all critics.

    • Thanks for the link there – that’s interesting. Part of me wonders what it’s like to be the subject of that sort of public humiliation, if that’s the right word. You work hard on something for months or years, and everyone just… hates it. I imagine that’s gotta be tough to take, but I think it’s a huge measure of a professional that they can take it on the chin and move past that. I love Kevin Smith, but I think he’s over-exposed himself, and has exposed how fragile a talent he is. He seems like a prima donna, venting over Twitter. It doesn’t change how much I loved most of his View Askew films, but it does diminsh my opinion of the man.

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