Sunday evening Joy and I were in Southport where they filmed the movie Safe Haven. We decided that would be the perfect place to actually watch the much anticipated movie based on another of Nicholas Sparks’ books. We got there twenty minutes before showtime and found two of the last five open seats in the theater. By the time the movie actually started there literally was not an empty seat in the theater. And did I mention they were showing the movie on two screens at the same time?
Of course, being in Southport, interest was heightened, but I think there has also been a lot of pent up demand for a truly romantic movie without the gross out humor that prevails today. But, still, this movie was third in the box office on President’s Day weekend. It wasn’t just a local phenomenon.
Which brings me to my point. This movie did well despite the clueless panning of USA Today, Rolling Stone, and other professional critics. In the picture on the right, we see that the Rotten Tomatoes poll of critics found only 12% liked the movie. Yet a full 72% of viewers enjoyed the movie.
Safe Haven was very enjoyable as a romance movie. The element of suspense might even broaden the appeal beyond the usual romance movie fans. But since I have a home near Southport and love it there, I know I am biased. The biggest round of applause in the theater was when the movie did an aerial fly in on the little town of Southport, North Carolina. It isn’t often that a town of less than 3,000 souls gets to “star” in a movie. But, as I’ve already said, the number of consumers that enjoyed the movie shows that it was a good movie even beyond our local enthusiasm. Quite a while ago I shared an essay on critiquing romance movies with my family. I thought the big gap between critics and consumers for Safe Haven would be a good excuse to share those comments with my blog readers as well. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you
How to Review a Chick Flick
I went to see Letters to Juliet this past Friday. Like a lot of people, I read movie reviews before deciding to lay my tiny fortune down at the ticket gate of my local theater. Although no longer an account holder at Rotten Tomatoes after their merger with Flixster, it is a great site for a quick overview of critics’ opinions about my potential choices. Sadly, it is clear that many of these reviewers need to be schooled in the art of writing a movie review for a chick flick. Good news. I’m here to give them that schooling.
First let me tell you what not to do. Do NOT criticize a romance movie for a predictable plot or an inevitably happy ending. The genre requires either said happy ending (Nora Ephron) or a melodramatically weepy romantically tragic ending (Nicholas Sparks). A movie critic who complains about the plot being predictable or the ending being happy is kin to the moron who complains that comic book movies like Iron Man 2 or Spider Man 3 lack character development or war movies like Saving Private Ryan are too violent. Failure to grasp fundamental concepts underlying the genre inform us as consumers that the reviewer is an idiot and should not be taken seriously.
I have long been of the opinion that most movie critics are so jaded from extended time in the cinema that they are no longer good for much more than critiques of the artsy and off-beat movies. One will get a much stronger sense of a movies appeal by going to a site like Flixup! that aggregates the favorable versus unfavorable tweets on Twitter about a specific movie. [UPDATE: Sadly, Flixup! is now defunct.] You already know whether you like action, romance, fantasy, comic book, cop or whatever type of movie. That is why you are thinking about going to see a specific flick. The best indicator of whether one will enjoy that movie is what other people drawn to the same genre thought of it.
Now, if a critic can clear this admittedly low hurdle, perhaps better characterized as a trip hazard, he or she can turn his consideration to the criteria about which lovers of chick flicks actually care.
1. Chemistry. We viewers must buy that there is chemistry between the protagonists. Think Bogie and Bacall in To Have or Have Not (1944). That was lightning and the movie is a justified classic. Please give us at least a spark.
2. Engaging characters. Humphrey Bogart, Martin Clunes, and Jack Black are not handsome men but they portray characters that engage us, focus our attention. We become involved in what happens to them. The characters can be good (William in William and Mary) or bad or, best of all, a basically good guy who has lost his way and is saved by the love of a good woman. We don’t care so much as long as they themselves have that charisma that connects us with their experience.
Too many movies miss the importance of strong character actors. They add depth of field to the cinemascape. Would Casablanca be the same if Rick walked away from the airport alone instead of with Victor Lazlo? I think not.
If one has chemistry between engaging characters it is pretty hard to disappoint us as an audience. But we do want more.
3. Intelligent writing. Now, there are those who think that there is no such thing as an intelligently written romance. I’d like to introduce you to Nora Ephron and Dorothy Sayers and this dude named Shakespeare.
4. Aesthetics. To the romantically inclined, aesthetics are extraordinarily important. A romance movie without aesthetics is like an action movie without a car chase or an explosion.
4a. Beautiful people. No where near as important as being engaging, but we do want beautiful people. Even if one protagonist is as engaging as Bogart you better deliver up a beautiful Bacall-ish character for counterbalance. Ingrid Bergman would do nicely.
Now some movies try to overcompensate. Let me just say that you could cast all the models from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and put them in a movie and it will not compensate for a shortfall in the area of chemistry, charisma, and intelligence. You might sell tickets of course, but not to the chick flick crowd. On the other hand, I think it is a mistake to have all character actors and no one who is easy on the eyes. Give me Jack Black, please, but be sure to serve up a little Kate Winslet on the side.
4b. Dish racks. In our family we talk about dish rack movies. My sister paused a movie and went back to inspect a beautiful dish rack on the set. Then she did it again . . . and again. My nephew calls movies with great sets “dish rack movies” and now so do we. What would Friends be without the coffee shop?
The other 4b. Scenery. It can be the skyscrapers of New York or vistas of Tuscany but romance fans want beautiful scenery. The corollary to this is that cinematography is critical to this genre. One cannot stint on production value in the romance genre. The scenery and scenes must be beautifully framed, lit, and shot. Don’t bother spending the money to go to Greece if you don’t spend the money to bring the proper artisans with you. (I’m looking at you My Life in Ruins.) Positive examples of this are You’ve Got Mail and A Good Year.
Now, frankly, if a movie gets these first four bits right they can pack up and go home. They are done. But there is room for more.
5. Humor. Comedy is an art unto itself. When a movie allows us to identify with a character to the point where we see ourselves doing what they are doing and in laughing at them can laugh at ourselves, it has taken us to a higher level. Think Tom Hanks getting romantic advice from Rob Reiner in Sleepless in Seattle.
6. Sensuality. Sex and sexy are not necessarily the same thing. A movie is probably more likely to be sexy without sex than with it. But it needs to give a nod to the fact that there is a sensual aspect to romance. This is the thinnest of tight ropes. Lean this way too far and the movie becomes cheapened. Sensuality must be an aspect of a relationship without ever becoming the focus of the relationship. Thumping up against walls and knocking dishes off of tables is to be avoided. Do we want cleavage and bounce, six pack abs, tight buns, and toned muscles? Are you kidding me? Just don’t use them to compensate for short falls in the fundamental areas. Don’t throw sex on top of the story. Weave sensuality into the story. Gratuitous no. Integral yes. See point 3.
7. Take us into a world we’ve never known. If we come away from a movie knowing more about what it means to be a race horse trainer or a diamond importer or a tech worker in Mumbai we give the movie bonus points. If we are intimate with a corner of the globe with which we were previously unfamiliar – bonus points. See point 3.
It is actually quite easy for a romance movie to be bad. But it isn’t bad because the plot was predictable or the ending was happy. Those criticisms say more about the reviewer than the movie. But for a movie that pulls together the seven pillars of chick flick excellence, the Flixup! meter will go off the charts. The review that will help me will tell me how the reviewer believes the movie performed with respect to the criteria we chick flick lovers care about.
P.S. I am not the Tom Long who does movie reviews for the Detroit News and he should not be blamed for anything said herein.