Among my favorite exercises in determining whether to drop a sawbuck on a new film is to compare the top (acclaim) and bottom (crime against humanity) blurbs on the Web site Metacritic. The truth may lie somewhere in the middle, hence the critical-mass average, but who cares about truth? The greater the disparity between writers who loved and hated a film, the more fascinating I find it to be.
When, for instance, I saw The Onion A.V. Club and The New York Times laud 2008 slasher The Strangers as an exercise in controlled mayhem and a slow crescendo of intimidation, respectively, my interest was sufficiently piqued. (Hard not to be with that films trailer, one of the best ever: Liv Tyler smoking a cigarette in a cabin unawares, as a masked man looms silently in the shadows.) But after scrolling down the page and finding condemnations worthy of an actual slasher -- No matter how nasty a gang of murderers is, the moviemaker calling the shots is ultimately worse (Boston Globe) and Sadism, impure and simple (Baltimore Sun) -- well, Elmwood or Clearview, then?
Paris 36, while somewhat less diabolical, is yet another intriguing critical divide. Opening tomorrow at Canal Place, Christophe Barratiers film is about as inoffensive as popular entertainment gets. The 1930s-set French musical fairy tale equates to Moulin Rouge minus the methamphetamines: a troupe of out-of-work Parisian stagehands trying to save a treasured old playhouse, the Chansonia, from faubourg fascists who would strong-arm it into extinction. Its a sweet double-cheek-kiss of a movie, a gleaming hunk of French period schmaltz expertly rendered by Barratier (New York Post), and so shameless in its pandering, sentimental vision of Frenchness as to constitute something of a national embarrassment (The New York Times). Wait, what?
Thank you, A. O. Scott, for rescuing Paris 36 from the realm of half-baked praise. Truth be damned -- Im much more likely to seek out national embarrassments than gleaming hunks of period schmaltz. Im also fairly confident in saying anyone unschooled in the intellectual subtext of Godard and Truffaut should find the film a charming diversion. They cant all be The 400 Blows, you know.