Life Itself is the new film written and directed by Dan Fogelman, the guy behind the juggernaut NBC hit This Is Us. So far, reviews have been, to put it mildly, excruciating. Our own Roxana referred to the movie as being ‘another piece of “Nice men have feelings too, love us for being so nice!” propaganda’, and that’s one of the kinder things said about it. Currently, the movie is sitting at 21 on Metacritic and, at the time of writing this piece, has a ranking of 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. Currently, Box Office Mojo are predicting a debut weekend of under $5m, which is half of what one would expect for a movie opening in over 2500 locations. All in all, this may be a bet that fires for its distributor, Amazon Studios.
Typically, I would advise, in my professional standing as a critic and pop culture hot takes merchant, that creators whose work has been reviewed negatively should stay the hell away from responding in any way. I used to be a book blogger and regular Goodreads user so let me tell you right now that nothing good comes from your impulsive desire to tell that woman who just hated your book why she’s wrong in every way. It gets all the more embarrassing when authors, directors and the like go after the professional critics. Never mind that the industry is crumbling, supported mostly by freelancers and hobbyists, and the notion that any of us have real power is hysterical: Do you really want to be the guy who throws a hissy over something as benign as a review? Even if the review is super mean, it’s seldom a battle you can win. I remember when James Franco called Ben Brantley of the New York Times a ‘little bitch’ because he received a mild review for his performance in Of Mice and Men on Broadway, and it was clear who gained the moral high-ground there.
Such responses tend to reveal more about the scorned than the critic, which is partly why I find the recent pushbacks to negative reviews of Life Itself by Fogelman. In an interview with TooFab, he dragged out a new defence that one doesn’t see utilized often in these situations:
‘I think a couple of the early reviews that have come out about this movie [‘Life Itself’] feel so out of left field to everybody who’s a part of this movie and to people who have been screening this film for the better part of a year now to both fancy filmmakers, critics, and audiences. There’s a disconnect between something that is happening between our primarily white male critics who don’t like anything that has any emotion.”
It’s not uncommon for such figures to claim that critics ‘just don’t get’ their film or book or whatever. It is often claimed that there is a disconnect between us cloistered critics and the real world. This fantasy is almost favourable to us because it imagines we are paid well in an occupation that’s notoriously difficult to make a living in, meaning we’re secluded in our towers and drinking martinis while we snort with derision at the diversions of the little people. Alas, the freelancer’s curse prevents daily cocktails.
Aside from that, there are the usual complaints about the evil critic fallacy: The notion that we’re not ‘real people’; the delusion that we secretly hate movies and live to destroy them; the good old ‘paid off by Disney’ myth, and so on. Yet that’s not the part of Fogelman’s defence that has me so entertained. No, this time, he’s decided that the problem with critical response to Life Itself is that film criticism is too dominated by white men who just don’t get what the film is going for.
Okay, so here’s the thing.
He’s not wrong, but he’s so not right either.
As we’ve talked about many times before on this site, film criticism is depressingly white and male. That’s disappointing on many levels but especially for the richness of critical discourse. Media literacy thrives on the biggest variety of perspectives possible. We all gain something when there are different voices at the table and criticism as a whole benefits from insights that may not be present when the majority of your reviews are by cishet white dudes who all own Scarface posters. Privilege blinds us and that applies to criticism too. Something that may seem pointless or generic to some - say, a rom-com like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before - will resonate much more to others who have never seen a story like that told from the point-of-view of a young Asian woman.
So, in that regard, I can see why Fogelman’s instinct is to blame the white male domination of film criticism for the negative responses to Life Itself. He’s a writer who tells unashamedly weepy stories and that stuff is, for better or worse, typically coded as female. The history of criticism is littered with feminine stories and artforms being dismissed as over-emotional or simplistic by men. Look at soap operas or romance novels or pop music. It can take a very long time to get over cultural biases like this, hence the need for more inclusiveness in criticism.
However, let’s not pretend for a moment that Fogelman is being a helpful ally in using this defence. He’s mad that people hate his film and believes the best way to defend what has widely been panned as emotional blackmail disguised as drama is to blame critics through concern trolling. It takes ten seconds to check Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes and see how many women hate Life Itself (spoiler: a lot). As noted by Jordan Ruimy, of the 19 women on Rotten Tomatoes who reviewed the film, 17 gave it bad reviews.
It’s immensely condescending to treat women and people of colour critics as a shield for bad reviews, and even more so to then claim that our delicate emotions are just more in tune with saccharine bilge than those emotionless men creatures. The idea that we’ll accept any old nonsense because it makes people cry is rooted in some questionable ideas about how gender works. I’m a big crier who will sob at basically anything but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give a free pass to a movie practically engineered to make me weep. There’s nothing worse than a transparently manipulative film that relies on overdone misery to make an emotional point.
If Fogelman really cares about the gender and racial gaps in film criticism, there are things he can do to help. He can set up a scholarship to financially support an up and coming critic, he can lend his name to various initiatives on the festival circuit to ensure places like Cannes and Telluride commit to gender balance in programming and press accreditation, or he can help fund travel and accommodation costs for freelancers who want to cover major events. It would genuinely help us all if he committed to fixing the issue rather than wielding it as a convenient shield for his own ego. Hit me up, Dan, so I can put you in touch with some cool people.