Our long national nightmare is over. After last week’s dust-up over the embargo on “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” reviews and the many issues it raised for both The New Yorker and movie critics everywhere, that embargo has lifted. As a result, a dozen reviews have now been posted on Rotten Tomatoes, 11 of which are positive. All is right with the world.
Well, all is sort of right with the world. The movie “We Bought a Zoo” — director Cameron Crowe’s tale of a widower (Matt Damon) who purchases (you guessed it) a zoo — inadvertently got dragged into the fray via that published series of e-mails between “Dragon Tattoo” producer Scott Rudin and embargo-busting New Yorker critic David Denby. (Memory refresher: Denby told Rudin he had to run his film review early because, among other reasons: “We had a dilemma: What to put in the magazine on December 5? Certainly not ‘We Bought the Zoo,’ or whatever it’s called.”)
Over the weekend, I interviewed Crowe and Damon for a story that will appear in this weekend’s Sunday Style section. It only seemed fair to give them a chance to respond to Denby’s dismissal of their movie. Here’s what they had to say.
(For the record, Damon hadn’t even heard about this whole episode, which afforded me the opportunity to quickly summarize this entire, semi-ridiculous affair for the benefit of Jason Bourne. Needless to say, this was an honor.)
What was your response to what Denby wrote? And as a follow-up, do you think critics tend to look askance automatically at films that have positive messages?
Crowe: When I read that, I thought, there are so many movies in the holiday season, and it’s so easy to make quick choices based on a lack of information. And he should see the movie. I’m actually anxious for him to see the movie. ... It’s a time filled with cynicism, and there’s a lot of movies about that, and this one is a little bit about hope and a lack of cynicism. And it deserves a place along with every other movie that’s about the gritty experience of what it’s like to be alive. This movie’s a little bit about moving on from that and learning how to bring some joy into your life.
Whatever you hear about it, I say go see it, and you’ll see that we’re different from a lot of movies. And that goes for David Denby, too.
Do you find it challenging to be in the entertainment industry and make projects that are non-cynical but also have some brains behind them?
Damon: I think it’s probably more difficult to be non-cynical and be a critic. I think it probably takes more guts for a critic to admit that this movie gets to them than it will for them to bash it, you know. But I love movies. And a movie like “Jerry Maguire,” for instance — I don’t have any problem admitting that that movie made me cry. And it made me cry a month ago when I saw it again. It just gets to me. I don’t feel like an overly optimistic or overly cynical person, but I do, I will give myself away to a movie as long as the movie doesn’t betray me. So a movie like ”Jerry Maguire” is perfect because I have that cathartic experience, and I don’t feel cheap afterwards, you know?
But I think that’s harder for movie critics. I remember Anthony Minghella telling me — he was a guest critic for a newspaper in London. He said, “It was incredible how quickly I devolved into vitriol and how I had to restrain myself from being just reductive.” He said, ”And I make movies, and I know how difficult it is even to make a bad movie.” There’s so much work that goes into this. So he goes, “I understand critics better now after having this experience of being critic for a month for this paper.”
Crowe: I feel like I am still a journalist. I still do that, and I love it. I know what the life of the critic is, and I get it. And you can make snap judgments that can change on a second’s notice because you’re sitting around with your friends and then you decide this is how we feel about something.
The Denby thing was almost funny to me because I felt like we were the people sitting at a table at the bar and this barroom brawl breaks out and they spill onto your table and you get knocked out. [Crowe and Damon both laugh.] So I’m like, hey man, I’m just having a sandwich here and Scott Rudin and David Denby just came twirling across and I got my jaw broken. It’s kind of like old-time theatrical business. Those two were tangling, and that was a private e-mail, and it was fun to happily watch from afar.