Manohla Dargis: The critic as movie killer
Before Manohla Dargis joined the New York Times, she was, along with Kenny Turan, our top critic at the Los Angeles Times. Particularly during awards season, I'd often get calls from the marketing chief at a specialty division who was releasing a movie with high Oscar hopes. The question was always the same: Who's reviewing the movie? Of course, that was code for: Please, God, tell us it's not Manohla.
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. (To be fair, she can be equally passionate about films she loves; for example, "Synecdoche, New York," or anything by David Lynch.) The production chief of one indie studio once was so infuriated by a string of negative Dargis reviews that he vowed to keep Manohla away from all of his future screenings, even if that meant stopping all our critics from seeing his movies. I told him it was a bad idea, since it would simply make Manohla a hero to critics everywhere, further increasing her clout. When he was still running Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, stung by Manohla's lash on any number of reviews, begged me to persuade her to have lunch with him; Harvey no doubt thought he could influence her with his considerable charm. She politely refused.
I was reminded of all this reading Manohla's review today of "The Reader," the Stephen Daldry film that stars Kate Winslet as a former concentration camp guard who has an affair with a teen boy in 1950s Germany. The movie was the Weinstein Co.'s one true hope to contend in the Oscar race, a hope that seems dashed by the early reviews, which run the gamut from faint praise (Variety's Todd McCarthy and Newsweek's David Ansen) to mild disapproval (the New Yorker's Anthony Lane) to total damnation, as in Manohla's review, which manages to trash the film's source material, Bernhard Schlink's much-praised novel ("Mr. Schlink's unpersuasive bid at generational soul-seeking") as well as the film itself, which she says "monumentalizes every trembling lip and fluttering eyelash, turning human gestures into Kodak moments."
I'm not saying Manohla is wrong or unfair: "The Reader" is clearly flawed in many ways, and Manohla is, as always, expert in picking the scabs from the film's weak spots. (It opens in L.A. this month.) But some critics clean the knife before they stick it in, as with Lane, who eases the pain of his pans with sly humor, dismissing "The Reader" as a "woefully polite, not to say British, take on a foreign horror." Manohla is straight, no chaser: "You have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard."
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. You might say Manohla occupies a unique perch: She's the critic you love to read, just as long as you're not reading about your movie.
Photo: Kate Winslet and David Kross in "The Reader." Credit: The Weinstein Co.