Blurbin’ Warfare: The Seedy Underbelly of Movie Reviews

Published on July 1st, 2011

James looks at movie review blurbs, and how they kind of suck.

Several months ago I lent my copy of Grandma’s Boy to a friend. After much pestering, he just returned to me this week. As a Nick Swardson fan, it was nice to have the movie back and on the walk back home, with little else to do, I read the case again. It has two reviews on it. Well, I guess more accurately, “blurbs”. Because of limited time and space in movie advertising, critics’ reviews and shortened down to concise blurbs. Below are the two blurbs for Grandma’s Boy used on the DVD case:

“fish-out-of-bongwater comedy” –Playboy

“Grandma’s boy has it all- bong hits, topless women…and Shirley Jones talking dirty.” -Los Angeles Times.

To me, neither of these are very positive reviews. The blurb from Playboy simply tells us that the movie is a stoner comedy. This is accurate but not exactly complimentary. The nicest part of that was when they called it a comedy but that’s more about genre than quality. I’d still call Little Nicky a comedy because that was its intention, despite it ending up a pretty laughless piece of shit. I was unable to find the entire Playboy review but this brief and qualitatively-neutral blurb leads me to believe there aren’t a lot of extremely positive words to be found in it. I did manage to find the full review from the Los Angeles Times. It was rather enlightening about the nature of blurbs.

First of all, the LA Times quote they use doesn’t do much to convince me it’s a great film. Tits, weed jokes and post-menopausal women seducing younger men isn’t “all” that I’m looking for in a movie. However, a look at the entire review reveals that was by far the most positive phrase up for the cherry picking. I won’t reprint the whole review but the quote below, which is the final line of the review, is a proper indication of the general tone:

“But the best thing going for this stoner comedy is that its target audience won’t remember it. And unlike the sober set, they won’t mind.”

I like Grandma’s Boy. Allen Covert, frequent second to eighth fiddle to Adam Sandler in other Happy Madison films, finally gets the lead role and while it doesn’t seem like too much of a departure from his real personality, does it well enough. The adorable Linda Cardellini isn’t really tested put undoubtedly passes and Nick Swardson and Joel Moore steal the show with relatively little screentime. But my point isn’t that the Los Angeles Times was wrong, simply misrepresented. What I learned investigating this is that this behaviour is not uncommon.

Welcome to the seedy world of movie blurbs. It’s where criticism meets commerce. When millions have been spent on production and ad campaigns, the last thing to do is sell the tickets. The best way to do that is to take the words said by someone who has seen the movie, pick out the good ones and show them to the people who haven’t, by any means necessary. It’s actually a lot more like a 50s detective movie than I ever suspected. Crooked businessmen, betrayal, ambiguous messages, twisting words, questionable trust, pay-offs, complete fabrications and fake identities.

If you read the whole LA Times review, you will see that the quote selected was to be read sarcastically. The reviewer, Roger Moore (not that one), was insincerely suggesting that the ganja, gigglebags and GMILFs would be enough to reduce Chronicles of Narnia’s ticket sales. There is no way that anyone who read that review would be at all confused about whether Mr. Moore enjoyed the movie but he did say something that, when isolated, may at least get the attention of the target audience of Grandma’s Boy.

The blurb world can be a deceptive place and with your money at stake, you must be careful. I would suggest a few things to navigate this dark labyrinth beneath Hollywood’s promotion machine.

1) Watch out for short blurbs. As we saw in the LA Times/Grandma’s Boy example, reading the entire review can shine light on the true sentiment of blurb. For example, Kevin Turan of Entertainment Weekly had a one-word blurb in the advertising for the movie Hoodlum: “irresistable.” A look at his full quotes sheds a bit of light on how this box office flop garnered this positive review.

“Even Laurence Fishburne’s incendiary performance can’t ignite Hoodlum, a would-be gangster epic that generates less heat than a nickel cigar. Fishburne’s ‘Bumpy’ is fierce, magnetic, irresistible even… But even this actor can only do so much.”

While Turan certainly seemed to enjoy one aspect of the film, it’s clear he could resist watching the entire film again. In this case, the ad copy was vague about what Turan enjoyed but sometimes vague words, like “biggest”, “loudest” and “CGI spectacle aren’t necesarrily good things.“Relentless” and “non-stop” might be compliments for an action movie but they are also words that could be found in the testimony of a rape victim, so take such terms with a grain of salt.

2) Ellipsis aren’t your friends. Similar to short blurbs, ellipsis (…) are great for taking things out of context by connecting two sentence fragments. Those little dots mean “words used to be here” and allow anyone to make a new, unintended meaning for someone else’s words. Here’s how the ads for Live Free or Die Hard quoted the New York Daily News: “hysterically…entertaining.” He is that part of the review as originally printed: “The action in this fast-paced, hysterically overproduced and surprisingly entertaining film is as realistic as a Road Runner cartoon.” You can see how easy it is to twist statements when you don’t feel attached to the idea of conveying their desired meaning. It’s so easy you can do at home. Here’s one I did in just minutes! “Jews…are great.” – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf.

3) Know your critics. Just because someone is quoted, doesn’t mean they are a smart person or even a movie critic. Think of how many small town papers and local news reports all across North America have an entertainment section or segment. That alone gives advertisers literally thousands of opinions to choose from and when enough people are asked, someone’s going to be dumb enough to like anything. Many of these people are more concerned about making a good pun than retaining credibility as a critic or trying to save you money. This is why Neil Rosen of NY-1 News would say, of Kangaroo Jack, “Kids will have a hopping good time!” Lots of people quoted aren’t actual movie critics, and lots of actual movie critics, like Peter Travers, are dumb whores. But people with poor taste, like Travers, aren’t what makes the world of movie blurbs a cold, soulless place. It’s cases like that of film critic David Manning. This man, who wrote for a small weekly paper in Connecticut called The Ridgefield Press, carries some infamy in critic’s circle because of a stretch of recommendations he made in 2000-2001. After giving positive reviews to several films made by Colombia Pictures (a subsidiary of Sony) he attracted plenty of attention to himself for the good things he had to say about Rob Schneider’s latest film, The Animal. This was a red flag and a journalist at Newsweek  decided to track down Manning, determined to discover who could refer to that cinematic disaster as “another winner.” The Ridgefield Press had never heard of David Manning and after a bit more digging, it became clear that a marketing executive at Sony made the guy up. There was no David Manning, just like there was no critic who ever liked The Animal, so one needed to be made up, and that’s what they did. This marketing executive created Manning, named him after his friend and had him sell movies no one wanted to see. To make things better, this came to light around the same time Sony was caught using its employees to act as moviegoers to give reviews for The Patrot in commercials. After a litigation battle, Sony was forced to pay $5 to anyone who saw Hollow Man, The Animal, The Patriot, Vertical Limit or A Knight’s Tale because of non-existent Manning’s blurbs.

4) Use common sense. There are hundreds of cases of reviews being taken out of context, rearranged, truncated, packed full of exclamation marks and otherwise disingenuously manipulated. A large majority of the time, critics aren’t asked for their approval on how their blurbs appear. So please, keep in mind, just because you heard something that sounded good about movie, it might not actually have been a compliment, or it may have been said about a different movie, or said by someone who doesn’t really exist. And really, even if your clone or future self tells you it’s good, you know, deep down in your heart, where things are pure and true, you shouldn’t actually go see “The Animal” with Rob fucking Schneider.

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