If it had been released 50 years ago, “The Help” would have been the cinematic event of the summer. It has all the elements that once guaranteed critical hosannas. It’s based on a beloved, bestselling novel and has a high-class cast that includes several award-winning actresses (Viola Davis, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburgen) along with ingratiating newcomers (Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Olivia Spencer). And it tackles a socially momentous theme: the relationship between white women and their black maids in the segregated South during the early days of the civil rights movement. Yet quite a few of the reviews have been lukewarm, which proves how drastically times have changed.
Movies with such a prestigious pedigree won nearly universal acclaim in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Think of such Oscar-winning films as “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “All the King’s Men,” “The Defiant Ones,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “In the Heat of the Night.” Critics lavished praise on these movies, and the industry showered them with awards. But values changed when a new generation of critics decided that once-disreputable genre pictures -- film noir thrillers, screwball comedies and low-budget westerns -- had been slighted while the press was slavering over movies with weightier themes.
These once-fashionable message movies came to be derided as earnest, simplistic and sentimental. There’s another key word that succinctly defines these earlier critical favorites: middlebrow. The word means “somewhat cultured” or aspiring to intellectual substance without quite reaching the exalted heights. Virginia Woolf defined the middlebrow reader as “betwixt and between,” devoted not to art for its own sake but to “money, fame, power, or prestige.” In other words, the middlebrow is not quite as smart as the true highbrow and not as spirited as the unpretentious lowbrow. Today’s critics wouldn’t dream of keeping company with this crowd.
But here are a few other words that might describe the films mocked as middlebrow: ambitious, humanistic, impassioned, moving, hard-hitting. When did all those adjectives turn into dirty words?
Many fine films are undervalued because they fall into the hated realm of the middlebrow. In addition to “The Help,” here are several other recent ones that didn’t get their just deserts. “The Whistleblower” is a potent drama about sex trafficking in the Balkans, anchored by a brilliant performance from Rachel Weisz as the investigator who fought to expose the conspiracy. Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal called the movie “clumsily didactic and flat.” The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Olsen agreed that it was “too well-intentioned for its own good.”
“Sarah’s Key,” a wrenching Holocaust drama, also got the back of several critics’ hands. The Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson charged it with “wringing from atrocity the most unseemly sentimentality” and added that it was “filled with the usual meaningless bromides.” Chris Weitz’s “A Better Life” impressed me as a searing father-son drama built around the hot-button issue of illegal immigration. Variety’s Justin Chang dismissed it as “an earnest and overly programmatic heart-tugger.”
Last year’s “Rabbit Hole” was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a family struggling with grief after the accidental death of their child. Theater critics generally raved, but their film compadres were more skeptical. Karina Longworth, critic for the LA Weekly, scoffed at the film’s “tastefulness -- one schematic acting showcase of a scene after another, rendered in an incredibly manipulative prestige-pic ‘minimalism.’”
A year earlier “The Last Station,” a moving drama about the last days of Leo Tolstoy, was praised for its performances but otherwise treated rather shabbily by several critics. A.O. Scott of the New York Times accused it of “bombast and grandiosity,” complaining that “it is so self-consciously eager to flaunt its own gravity and good taste.”
Ambitious foreign films are not immune to the critics’ barbs. This year’s Oscar winner for foreign language film, Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World,” and the top choice two years earlier, Yojiro Takita’s “Departures,” both had a surprising number of vitriolic detractors.
“Good taste” is the worst sin to these middlebrow-hating reviewers. That some of these films win or are nominated for Oscars does not endear them to the critics who consider themselves far more sophisticated than doddering members of the motion picture academy. For instance, last year’s best picture winner, “The King’s Speech,” was not universally loved. The New York Times’ Stephen Holden called it “a well-made, old-fashioned, Anglophiliac product from the ‘Masterpiece Theater’ school of filmmaking.” Talk about damning with faint praise! Of course these films will always find champions, but it is distressing to see intelligent critics trampling on so many good movies. Unlike the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel, specialized films depend on critical endorsements, and these movies are hurt by wan or downright hostile reviews. I know it isn’t fair to give the critics all the blame. Audiences have become terribly unadventurous, and in tough times they aren’t rushing out to the multiplex to see painful movies about sex trafficking, teenage bullying and the controversy surrounding illegal immigration. Some of these films certainly have flaws, but they also have a powerful effect that many critics ignore. Younger critics in particular are desperate to prove that they’re hip, and so they champion esoteric, highbrow movies -- “The Tree of Life,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “The Future” -- that most audiences are more likely to find ponderous, impenetrable or impossibly precious. These younger reviewers also have a fondness for lowbrow fare -- gross-out comedies like “Superbad” or violent genre pictures like “Bellflower” and “Zombieland.” In the past, many gritty crime movies were indeed underrated while highfalutin literary adaptations were overrated. But that battle has been won, and we’ve swung too far to the opposite extreme. Here’s my advice to today’s persnickety critics: Don’t be ashamed to champion humane, emotionally satisfying films that dare to tackle subjects that matter. In other words, let’s hear it for the middlebrow.