Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Perfect (Critical) Storm

My 10-year-old friend, Margaret Thomson, is prone to remind me when I balk at the suggestion of accompanying her to a movie on the top of her list, but because of unfavorable criticism, at the bottom of mine, "You know, Marc, the reviewers aren't always right." I typically stammer and make a special pleading for avoiding the film under consideration - "Evan Almighty" having been the latest example - but can hardly refute the truth of Margaret's assertion.

Reviewers aren't always right. In fact, there is no better way to demonstrate that they are sometimes wrong than to exhibit how they contradict each other, and I don't mean with some general expression of approval or disapproval. Two reviews of Adam Shankman's "Hairspray", which opened in theaters this week, illustrate how reviewers can out-and-out disagree, not just in a general thumbs-up or thumbs-down sort of way, but in their very specific opinions about the way an actor, in this case John Travolta, chooses to play a particular role.

David Denby of the New Yorker discusses the casting of Travolta as the mother of the movie's heroine, Tracy, contrasting it with the selection of his predecessors for the same gender-bending assignment in the earlier version of the film and in the Broadway musical,
I admire John Travolta, but using this movie star, rather than the show’s Harvey Fierstein, as Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s hefty mother, is an idiocy on the same level as replacing Julie Andrews with Audrey Hepburn for the movie version of “My Fair Lady.” Both Fierstein and Divine, who played Edna in the original movie, worked as female impersonators who confidently let us in on the joke. In the show ... [Fierstein] was not a man pretending to be a woman; he was a man openly playing a woman and speaking in his own voice.
Travolta's sin, it appears, stems from his misguided commitment to authenticity, as Denby explains,
But Travolta does a wistful imitation of the female sex. ... The role demands exaggeration rather than modesty, yet Travolta, with a misbegotten sense of duty, tries to give an authentic performance as a working-class Baltimore housewife of forty-five years ago—a shy, guarded woman who is embarrassed about her weight. It’s a touching attempt, but the lunatic joke that started with Divine has almost vanished.
Denby's conviction about the matter - calling the decision to cast Travolta an idiocy, for example - would suggest that his opinion would be one readily shared, but A.O. Scott of the New York Times weighs in with an entirely different take on the matter. Indeed, Scott commends Travolta for exactly those things for which Denby pilloried him,
Perhaps wisely Mr. Travolta does not try to duplicate the outsize, deliberately grotesque theatricality of Divine’s performance or to mimic the Mermanesque extravagance of Harvey Fierstein's Broadway turn, choosing instead to tackle the role of Edna as an acting challenge. The odd result is that she becomes the most realistic, least stereotypical character in the film,
Unlike Denby, Scott apparently feels that modesty not exaggeration is the order of the day for Travolta, as he notes,
A shy, unsophisticated, working-class woman, Edna is ashamed of her physical size even as she seems to hide inside it, as if seeking protection from the noise and indignity of the world outside. [... Without] entirely letting go of Edna’s timidity, Mr. Travolta explores the exhibitionistic and sensual sides of her personality.
Now, who's right? Denby or Scott? I can hardly offer an analysis, having seen neither the latest version of the movie nor the Broadway production on which it is closely based. But, honestly, my opinion of John Travolta's Edna Turnblad would hardly settle the matter. The point is not so much deciding who is right, but emphasizing the value of movie reviews to raise issues that potentially heighten the appreciation of the movie in question.

As Margaret observed, the reviewers aren't always right, but, then again, there may be something to be learned from the ways in which they reach their conclusions, right or wrong.
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