I will admit to being a bit puzzled by the aggressive, near-unanimous praise for director George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Not because I didn’t like it, mind you; I thought it was quite fun in a crazy sort of way. But I’m inclined to like this sort of thing. If you don’t believe me, ask me about “Sucker Punch” some time.*
Still, this is a remarkably odd movie — it has been accurately described as a $150 million art-house flick — to have received the kind of praise it has. A movie this stylized and idiosyncratic should be more divisive. “Fury Road” clocks in at 98 percent fresh amongst all critics at Rotten Tomatoes and has pulled down a 91 rating from Metacritic, making it the best-rated wide-release film of the year, and by a fairly wide margin.
The reviews tended to follow a formula: a nod to the flick’s nominal feminism followed by praise for its relative paucity of computer-generated stunts and a clucking about the state of modern action filmmaking.
However, it’s not simply the near-unanimity of the praise that shocks; it’s the boisterous vociferousness of its boosters. Scanning “Fury Road’s” “top critics” page on Rotten Tomatoes, one is told “this movie will melt your face off” (Christy Lemire) and that it’s “a double-barrelled shotgun enema straight to the senses” (Geoff Pevere). If we’re judging by pure excessive assertion, though, the winner has to be Deadspin’s Twitter feed, which, while linking to Will Leitch’s effusive review, suggested that watching “Mad Max: Fury Road” will prompt a rather awkward evacuation.
The ostentatiously competitive nature of these reviews was fascinating. Everyone seemed to want to demonstrate that his or her love for the film was most vigorous, a reaction that called to mind Chris Richards’s recent essay on poptimism.
Richards was discussing the tendency of pop critics to go gaga for Gaga. “When a pop star reaches a certain strata of fame—and we’re talking Beyoncé, Drake, Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire levels here—something magical happens,” Richards writes. “They no longer seem to get bad reviews. Stars become superstars, critics become cheerleaders and the discussion froths into a consensus of uncritical excitement.”
George Miller is no Beyoncé, and I wouldn’t suggest that the plague of poptimism has hit the film industry yet; if it had, Marvel would be an unstoppable critical force in addition to being a juggernaut at the box office. But the critical herd does sometimes have the annoying tendency to settle on a piece of art as beyond criticism, to the bemusement of audiences. (Witness the B+ Cinemascore given to “Fury Road” by audiences this weekend and the shrug that “Boyhood” — one of two films to receive a 100 from Metacritic — received at the box office.)
The world needs smart writers willing to go against the grain. And here I will praise Armond White. (I’ll wait while the critics reading this utter their groans. Go on. Done? Thanks.) Say what you will about White — he has been dismissed as a “troll” by none other than the late, great Roger Ebert — but I never fail to find his work interesting. Is he a contrarian? Sure. But he’s a smart one who has forgotten more about film than most of us ever knew. I think White is largely wrong about “Fury Road,” but I also think that the concluding paragraph of his review is a useful check on the overheated praise it has received:
By overinflating the biker-movie concept (featuring whips and chains, leather and studs, and a body-pierced, dreadlocked, skinhead chorus line), Miller allows his outré flamboyance to rob subcult menace of its edge. This distracts from the cultural collapse that’s really taking place on screen. His degraded audience mistakes the sentimental ending for narrative satisfaction. That’s what happens when movie culture has moved to a state of entropy. Fury Road is essentially an expanded movie trailer, full of inflated highlights — exactly what everyone expects and has already seen.
Poptimism “establishes a hasty and formidable wave of acclaim, and to speak out against it at a later date is to out yourself as a hater, a contrarian, a click-baiter or a troll,” Richards wrote. And, sure enough, White has been mocked for his hot take, slammed for his #SlatePitch.
What’s the point of film criticism if it boils down to finding the most aggressively gross bodily function to describe excitement? Even (perhaps especially) with popular, acclaimed films a conversation is preferable to a praise chorus. I love flipping through old collections of film criticism, many of which can be obtained from Amazon or AbeBooks for a dollar or two, to find points of disagreement published before consensus takes hold. It’s fun reading John Simon take a shiv to “The Godfather” or Stanley Kauffman** explaining why he doesn’t care for Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach” or “Judgment at Nuremberg” — not because they’re right, necessarily, but because critical consensus is boring. There are only so many ways to say something is great. And we often learn more from those we disagree with than those we consider comrades in arms.
* Virtually every criticism of “Sucker Punch” could be leveled at “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Not that I’m bitter that one’s reviled while the other’s beloved.
** In his review of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” Kauffmann writes he “was castigated for [his] review of On the Beach, with the implication that anyone who found faults in the film was antipeace.” I suppose it’s better to be labeled a troll than a warmonger. Progress!