Column: ‘Promising Young Woman’ and ‘Malcolm & Marie’ put film critics under fire. Here’s why

Zendaya and John David Washington in Sam Levinson's film "Malcolm & Marie."
(Dominic Miller / Netflix)

As someone who has written about the entertainment industry for a very long time and in many capacities, I wish I had a nickel for every actor, director, screenwriter, novelist, playwright and performer who looked me straight in the eye and said, “I never read the reviews.”

If I did, I could stop writing about the entertainment industry, or anything else, really — I’d be too busy furnishing my London and Paris apartments.

And if I had a nickel for each of those people who were somehow able to quote certain reviews word for word, usually in a voice of outrage, I would also have that Italian villa to visit.

But I don’t. What I do have, as a former critic and a person alive on this planet, is the certainty that most artists are aware of what has been written about their work and are often not happy about it. Some artists believe that critics are nothing but a pack of frustrated parasites; some treat criticism as a flawed and sometimes capricious necessity. Increasingly, artists and others have begun pushing back against criticism in general, and certain reviews in particular, as yet another tool of cultural exclusion and oppression.

That is as it should be.

The problem is that when critics get criticized publicly, many people — sometimes but not always including the actual critic — lose their minds, as if the seventh seal had been broken, unleashing the ghost of Addison DeWitt on us all.

But as most of them will be happy to tell you, critics do not exist to provide the last word, and criticism, like anything else, is not going to get any better if people don’t point out its flaws. Live by the sword, etc.


Recently, it’s been film critics facing the pointy end, both on screen and off, with the resultant hysteria and, one hopes, illumination.

This feature writing-directing debut from Emerald Fennell (“Killing Eve”) puts a sharp, tonally unsettling spin on the rape-revenge thriller.

In a December interview with the New York Times to promote “Promising Young Woman,” star Carey Mulligan and writer-director Emerald Fennell discussed, among other things, the sexism that permeates Hollywood — in forms as varied as the ubiquitous “beautiful but does not know it” script description of female characters and the use of date rape as humor.

As an example of the insidious nature of the male gaze, Mulligan referred to a review of their film in Variety (which she only read, she said, because “I’m a weak person”). Toward the end of the review, critic Dennis Harvey questions the choice of Mulligan for a role he identifies as an “admittedly multi-layered apparent femme fatale — Margot Robbie is a producer here and and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her. Whereas with this star, Cassie wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blond hair seems a put-on.”

Carey Mulligan in "Promising Young Woman."
Carey Mulligan stars in writer-director Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman.”
(Focus Features )

It is a strange, almost last-minute aside in an overwhelmingly positive review, and one that Mulligan read as an evaluation of her looks rather than her ability: “I felt like it was basically saying that I was not hot enough to pull off this role.”

She hastened to point out, in that interview and others, that she wasn’t personally wounded so much as concerned about the emphasis put on women’s looks, in film and in general.

But the social media firestorm was immediate and fierce, and it was Harvey who got burned. Rather than give him, or another critic, the chance to respond, Variety took the virtually unheard of step of attaching an apology to Mulligan, citing her “daring performance,” atop Harvey’s review. A new level of fresh hell broke loose as fellow critics rushed to condemn Harvey’s editors and defend the sanctity of film reviews.

This while many critics were still vibrating over the perpetual dissing of “that white lady critic from the Los Angeles Times” in Sam Levinson’s new film “Malcolm & Marie.”

John David Washington and Zendaya star in Sam Levinson’s self-defeating two-hander about a relationship on the rocks.

In “Malcolm & Marie,” which will begin streaming on Netflix Friday, lovers Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) return home from the successful premiere of Malcolm’s new movie only to become engulfed in an argument that dissects the purpose of film, the value of authenticity, the nature of human love and, just for fun, the potentially intrinsic bias of criticism.

That bias is embodied by the above mentioned female critic, who in Malcolm’s view is mentally incapable of understanding his work when she doesn’t like it and, as he asserts later in the film, even when she does.

(I feel obliged to reveal here that I liked “Malcolm & Marie” more than some other critics, including Justin Chang — the non-white, non-lady who reviewed it for The Times. Which is not to say that he is wrong and I am right because that is not what criticism is ever supposed to be. Also, I am not a film critic and he is, which means our jobs are very different.)

That writer-director Sam Levinson, who is white, chose to unleash Malcolm’s rage on a white female critic stung a bit, and not because it appeared to be referring to Katie Walsh, a regular Times contributor who wrote an absolutely glorious and very negative review of Levinson’s previous film.

There are still so few female critics, and the “Karen” trope has become so tired, that Malcolm’s attacks initially seemed like particularly cheap shots.

But a key theme of the film is the exploration of intrinsic bias — the idea that the work of a Black man cannot be understood clearly by a white woman who, according to Malcolm, is so busy trying to measure his intent (and to follow her own woke agenda by placing him on a hierarchy of Black directors) that she can’t see the film as a film.

‘Mank’ and ‘Nomadland’ are among the leaders of the field in the 2021 Golden Globe nominations.

When he reads her glowing review of his latest, he picks apart her praise with the ferocity of Salinger’s Zooey Glass trying to convince his sister that she cannot really love Christ because she does not understand His true nature.

Within the universe of the film, Malcolm’s fixation on this particular critic reveals his insecurity and contradictory beliefs more than anything else.

But its highly insulting tone, and at times, startlingly precise echo of overused and subtexted phrases, got many critics’ attention.

At this point we all know what “urban” is code for, but Malcolm’s offense at the term “jazzy” is something to think about.

It’s not exactly the same as Mulligan reading “not hot enough” into Harvey’s review of her Golden Globe-nominated performance, but when Marie suggests that portions of Malcolm’s movie might have been better if a female director had shot them, his response — that it is beyond useless to view a work through the endless iterations of what it might have been in someone else’s hands — speaks directly to Mulligan’s gripe.

Harvey’s ill-considered musing about Mulligan versus Robbie seems to indicate that he missed a pretty big point of “Promising Young Woman,” which is not about a femme fatale. But leaving that aside, why compare an actual performance with one that does not exist, especially if the actual performance was a good one?

The danger for any critic, professional or otherwise, is relying on some notion of “should.” What a person “should” look like, sound like, think like. What an artist “should” have done, what a work “should” say or how it “should” say it. “Should” is a verb indicating obligation, duty or correctness. Its use or suggestion — Robbie should have played the lead — is a tell, a revelation of pre-existing conditions and expectations.

“Should” has been imprinted, to some degree, on every single person from the moment they became conscious of symbols and their meanings.

“Should” is why we have never had a female president, why Black filmmakers are categorized as “Black filmmakers,” why people who go to college are instantly perceived as smarter than people who do not, and why all those “Karens” exist in the first place — because certain individuals believe that something is happening (a Black man is asking them to leash their dog, a Latino barista is telling them to put on a mask) that “should” not be happening.

“Should” is at the bottom of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and classism — all the forces of exclusion and oppression that are used to define a narrow group of people as those who “should” lead us, speak for us, entertain us.

Making her feature film debut as writer-director, “The Crown” star Emerald Fennell discusses the inspirations behind her revenge thriller “Promising Young Woman,” starring Carey Mulligan.

Critics — being first and foremost people — are not exempt from the cultural power of “should.” Indeed, their “shoulds” are both demanded and reinforced by classics, by canons, by other critics, by the conversation of the moment.

But since their job is, at its best, to illuminate and engage, critics must tread carefully to avoid the sexism, racism and elitism built into not only into whatever art form they are writing about but also criticism itself.

What “should” a voice of authority sound like anyway?

Our expectations and lenses as critics — and I include myself in this — must be shaped by the understanding that many of our notions about what is good art or good criticism were formed by the same culture that has rigorously excluded most women and people of color from its highest honors and most valued ranks. The canons we were taught and to which we refer are all “classic” because this culture has deemed them so.

Are there reviews I wrote in which I praised a certain kind of character because he was a good version of an archetype while undervaluating a figure who seemed unfamiliar and therefore strange? Yes, there are. Am I guilty of writing more often about women’s looks than men’s because the women’s somehow seemed more important to performance or of more interest to the reader? Yes, I am. Have I sometimes celebrated diversity for diversity’s sake instead of giving an equal reading to a performance or a series itself? Yes, I have.

When people called me out, I experienced the knee-jerk reaction of defensiveness and took shelter behind the title of critic. Then I tried to do better, though I often failed. I may be failing now. But if we don’t talk about bias and accountability, history and responsibility, we will keep doing what we’ve always done and keep getting what we’ve always gotten. Culture, like everything else, is ruled by the laws of inertia; it will keep moving forward in a straight line at the same speed unless acted upon by a force greater than itself.

No one is suggesting that we toss away the classics, the canons or even all the “shoulds”; just that we try to be aware of what they are: definitions that are limited by who was allowed to create, whose visions were allowed to be shared, at whatever time they represent.

It is impossible to write criticism without giving offense. Critics like to tell themselves, and anyone who will listen, that it isn’t personal, that it’s about the work, which is not always admirable. But the work is made by people and people tend to react to criticism. Some, like Malcolm in “Malcolm & Marie,” can find objectionable aspects to the most positive reviews (just as some find value in negative ones).

You could look at Mulligan’s choosing one paragraph from a positive review, or indeed one review from the many in which she was roundly praised, as evidence of her hyper-sensitivity. But hyper-sensitivity is not born in a vacuum and neither were Mulligan’s comments; they were part of a larger discussion about the variety of sexist obstacles and indignities women face in the entertainment industry.

Dennis Harvey need not be sacrificed for criticism’s collective sins of bias — there are far better ways to move the larger conversation forward than slapping a strangely worded apology on top of a review. But neither should criticism’s subjects be dismissed or criticized for pushing back.

It’s a conversation we should be having, pretty much all the time. And that’s a “should” I’ll stand by.