Anthony Lane of The New Yorker is my (Ben) favorite film critic (though Jerry Grit finds him too fizzy and prefers the magazine’s other reviewer, the workmanlike David Denby, while Mark Hoobler would contend A.O. Scott is a better judge of cinema than both). I have read hundreds of Lane’s reviews, the bulk of them from his superb collection, Nobody’s Perfect. While all movie tastes differ, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve taken serious issue with Lane’s consideration and judgment. (Foreshadowing: This will happen in the fourth graf of this post.) Like fellow New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg is on politics and James Fallows on media, or how Randall Jarrell was on poetry, Lane has the persuasive ability to convince you of the rightness of his judgment. He has an abundance of a great critic’s indispensable virtue: fairness. (Not coincidentally, my least favorite critics — Walter Kirn, Dale Peck, Christopher Hitchens, to say nothing of political commentators — strike me as the most unfair.)
Lane’s recent review of Brüno might seem an exception. Erin and I had both been weighing whether or not to see it. We are “Da Ali G Show” fans and thoroughly enjoyed Borat (me probably a bit more than Erin), and we’ve already incorporated a new voreslang from the Brüno trailer ( “Zat’s such a Samantha thing to zay”). Lane eviscerates the film, saying
I’m afraid that “Brüno” feels hopelessly complicit in the prejudices that it presumes to deride. You can’t honestly defend your principled lampooning of homophobia when nine out of every ten images that you project onscreen comply with the most threadbare cartoons of gay behavior. A schoolboy who watches a pirated DVD of this film will look at the prancing Austrian and find more, not fewer, reasons to beat up the kid on the playground who doesn’t like girls. There is, on the evidence of this movie, no such thing as gay love; there is only gay sex, a superheated substitute for love, with its own code of vulcanized calisthenics whose aim is not so much to sate the participants as to embarrass onlookers from the straight—and therefore straitlaced—society beyond.
We both read the review independently of one another and both arrived at the same conclusion: We will never see Brüno. It’s not that we wouldn’t be amused at parts (as reliable critics Erik Brueggemann and my brother Dan attest we would) or that we consider ourselves squeamish (although we don’t jump at the opportunity to watch a talking penis). It’s that, with Lane’s review irreversibly embedded in our heads, we could not be convinced that any other verdict would be more appropriate than his own. A brutal review, yes, but to our minds not an unfair one.
Is this closed-mindedness? Shouldn’t we at least arrive at our own conclusion? There are arguments for that. But given the price of a movie ticket today, it’s an argument we’re not going to have.
This brings us to Lane’s take on The Half-Blood Prince, reviewed here yesterday. Simply put, it was unfair. Lane woke up on the wrong side of the bed or was bullied by director David Yates in junior high or something. He reads the film’s style as “dour and heavy,” which I could chalk up to an honest disagreement in mood. But when he writes that the
bruised, lead-and-sepia tone that [Yates] uses to tint the entire landscape of the movie [is] not only … lowering to behold; it also scrubs away any remembrance that this saga of gifted kids was once a bit of a jape. Why is it that, from Gotham City to Hogwarts, the official word has gone out that anything dark and edgy is a de-facto guarantee of weight and impact? Just what is so serious about horny adolescents cooking potions?
For one, the film is funny. We’ve expressed our fondness for Jim Broadbent’s performance, and Michael Gambon wrings some dry humor from Dumbledore (as does the marvelous Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood). Secondly, the series becomes increasingly dark and serious as it progresses, though it never choked off the pleasure of Rowling’s magical universe. The films, especially the last two, have done the same. If anything, they still play it too safe: in the book when Harry forces Dumbledore to drink from the cup, Dumbledore screams, “I want to die! I want to die!” and later, “KILL ME!” That would have been a truly unnerving scene to recreate on film, which settles for a reluctant Dumbledore drinking the cup and then appearing to be in need of a very long nap.
Lane’s final jibe is to imply that Half-Blood Prince devolves into sub-Tolkien borrowing. He’s right to see parallels (the dead Aragog, the Gollum-like Inferi) but wrong to conclude Potter’s universe is inferior by comparison. It is different, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as films, were superior in skill and cohesion. There were also only three of them, helmed by one (superlative) director, Peter Jackson. Both series should be viewed on their own terms.
What Lord of the Rings and the last four Harry Potter films share is that we’ll happily cozy up to them on some future rainy afternoon when we need comfort food from the DVD library. As for my tiff with Mr. Lane, I suspect we’ll soon put it behind us. I once again yield the floor to his superior judgment.