Arts Extra: Unreviewable

Recently, NEWSWEEK's film critic, David Ansen, went on vacation, and it fell to me to review movies for three weeks. Initially, it struck me as odd that David had chosen to take time off so soon after the holidays. Then I looked at the schedule of upcoming movies, and the blood drained from my face. David is not only a graceful, analytical writer, but also a shrewd son of a bitch. What garbage the studios release this time of year! In December, they deliver the movies they're proudest of, flooding the theaters with their highbrow fare and their socially conscious epics, so as to be eligible for Academy Awards. Then, in January, they begin releasing junk almost without exception. The rest of the winter season has become such a giant dumping ground that you can hear the seagulls wheeling overhead.

The one semi-saving grace for a critic is that, increasingly, when studios make lousy movies they decline to screen them for review. To be fair, daily newspaper critics are generally allowed to see even the most wretched films in time to have a review out on the day of release. Weekly critics, however, are often barred from screenings until it is impossible to publish a story before the highly lucrative opening weekend. The reviewer's role is no longer to warn people away from a soul-killing movie (Save your money! Spend time with your kids!) but to commiserate with them after the fact (Didn't that suck?! I had to see it, too!). Why are daily critics given special treatment? Presumably because they have only a single day to rain on the studios' multimillion-dollar marketing parade. As a friend of mine, who's a critic at another publication, puts it, "If you come out on the Monday before a movie opens, you have a whole week to spread the toxic word. The studios hate that. That's what they hate the most."

In any event, the studios' policy of dodging reviews patently works. Chris Rock's unreviewable "Heaven Can Wait" remake, "Down to Earth," just had a giddy $17.5 million opening weekend, and the unreviewable-and, I gather, unwatchable-cancer romance, "Sweet November," took in $10.6 million. As I write this, we're still awaiting the fate of Brendan Fraser's something-or-other "Monkeybone" (20th Century Fox wouldn't let me review it prior to release, but they did send over a great many bananas with promotional stickers). We were also not invited to review Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt's caper movie "The Mexican" in advance. This last movie is a surprising, and disappointing, entry on the blackout list. Could Julia and Brad's movie be that bad? Journalists initially suspected that the studio, DreamWorks, didn't want reviewers to alert audiences to the fact that-despite the love-sexy movie poster-the stars only spend about 20 minutes together onscreen. Now that reviews are finally starting to trickle out, it seems more likely that the studio was holding the movie back from reviewers because, you know, it sorta stinks. (One critic compared it to the Steve Martin/Chevy Chase/Martin Short movie "Three Amigos"-unfavorably.) Maybe Julia's handlers are nervous about having a weak movie in the marketplace while Academy members are considering whether to vote for her for Best Actress for "Erin Brockovich." Granted, it's a conspiracy theory, but when studios guard their movies so zealously, conspiracy theories breed fast and furious.

Movie publicists are often in a tricky spot where screenings are concerned. They need to show their bad movie to feature writers looking to do actor profiles (i.e., drum up flattering press), but they also need to hide it from critics (i.e., suppress negative buzz). Typically, they simply say that a particular film is not yet finished, hence it can be previewed but not re-viewed. The musical score's still temporary! The color hasn't been corrected! We're still waiting on two F/X shots from ILM! When the eleventh hour finally arrives-and the movie studios must, at long last, let critics see the movie in question-the studio often holds massive screenings packed with "real people" so that, even if the reviewer hates the damn thing, he or she will hear the joyous, rollicking laughter of people who have won free tickets on the radio. This is really an audience picture! the publicist will say. You've really got to see it with an audience!

In fairness, that's often true. I remember seeing a "Nutty Professor" screening that brought down the house. Eddie Murphy was then at a career low, but the movie played so well with the young crowd that it was clear a comeback was afoot. Being surrounded by a massive laugh track can be very persuasive. And it can be difficult to judge certain kinds of movies in a small screening room, surrounded only by a few dozen fellow writers and their scratching pens. I saw a very early screening of "Titanic," which I thought was bad beyond belief and which I felt certain would lose a spectacular amount of money. Everyone in the room seemed to dislike it, too. Later, I found out it was just a weird, jinxed screening; there'd been negative ions in the air. When I told people in the movie industry that I hated "Titanic," they would invariably look surprised and say, "You must have been at that screening." Months later, I watched the movie on an airplane and sort of liked it. Not wearing headphones helped.

As long as review screenings are unpredictable affairs, big movie studios will be reluctant to have them for iffy movies. What's a critic-or a fill-in critic-to do? I spent the last couple of weeks reviewing terrific foreign and independent movies: the vivid biopic "Pollock," the elegant and quietly erotic Chinese drama "In the Mood for Love" and the charming, Woody Allen-esque French comedy, "The Taste of Others." I was disappointed that Hollywood had so little to offer. But before long, the studios will start releasing great movies again-and David Ansen will be back, tan, rested and ready to review.