Or so says Patrick Goldstein at his blog at the LA Times, deeming her a “movie killer” and adding:
It’s an open secret in indie Hollywood that no one wants Manohla Dargis to review their movie, fearing that the outspoken critic will tear their film limb from limb. It’s the ultimate backhanded compliment, since what they really fear is Manohla’s persuasiveness — that she’ll write a review whose combination of vitriolic snarkiness and intellectual heft will actually persuade high-brow moviegoers to drop the film from their must-see list.
Which is all very well, except Goldstein then digs into Dargis’ review of “The Reader,” which he interprets (I’d say wrongly) as “total damnation” of the film, writing that she “manages to trash the film’s source material, Bernhard Schlink’s much-praised novel… as well as the film itself.” That “much-praised” is a cheap dig; the “But Oprah liked it!” argument doesn’t make Dargis’ opinion of it any less valid. And Goldstein goes on:
What causes so much fear and loathing in the filmmaking community about Manohla’s work as a critic isn’t her blunt appraisals but her seeming lack of empathy for the challenge of tackling difficult material. No one blinks an eye when a critic eviscerates a dumb summer comedy — that’s a fair target. It’s the filmmakers who’ve aimed high and been brought to their knees by a Dargis pan who feel as if they’ve been gored for sport.
Beyond my fundamental disagreement with the idea that when a move is Serious it deserves a softer critical touch because it’s somehow trying harder, this also misses by a mile the point of the final paragraph of Dargis’ review, which is that “The Reader” is, under its glaze of Academy bait, just as much a commercial enterprise as, say, that theoretical “dumb summer comedy,” and one that returns to the eternal cinema spring of the Holocaust as proof of its supposed depth and worthiness. God knows, she’s certainly gentler with Stephen Daldry’s film than she was in her excellent dismissal of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” which faced the same complaint.
Dargis is a critic I’ve found comes across sharper in out-of-context phrases than in the opinion expressed in each review as a whole, which may also be why studios are averse — so pullquote unfriendly! But the divvying up of reviews by the NY Times critics has generally seemed fair and mindful of the paper’s place and power — the co-chiefs give attention and word count to films that are interesting in a positive or negative sense, and often seem to pass off pans of uninteresting films, even if they’re larger, to other writers. It’s only once in a while, as when Dargis came down full-force on A J Schnack’s “About a Son” when it received a small release, that it’s felt unbalanced. At any rate, “The Reader,” which is from a two-time Oscar nominated director, is based on a best-selling novel and stars both Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet — it doesn’t need or deserve a handicap.
[Photo: “The Reader,” Weinstein Company, 2008]
+ Manohla Dargis: The critic as movie killer (LA Times)