If you do it right, film criticism is a lonely job. But some films make it lonelier than others. Films like “Boyhood.”
For just about every other critic in America, “Boyhood” has been the opposite experience, a chance to join in an unprecedented chorus of shared exultation about a film written and directed over the course of a dozen years by Richard Linklater that used the same group of actors to watch as a boy named Mason grows from a child of 6 to a young man of 18.
The New York Times called it “one of the most extraordinary movies of the 21st century.” Film Comment labeled it “wondrous” and put it on its cover. The authoritative Thompson on Hollywood blog reported that it “debuted to astonishing figures” and noted it “ranks as the highest scored new release for at least this century at Metacritic.” Variety ran a piece headlined “Why Richard Linklater Deserves an Oscar for ‘Boyhood,’” and no fewer than 16 critics (I counted) were quoted in a recent print ad calling it a masterpiece and throwing in words like “visionary,” “transporting” and “profound” for good measure.
I was not one of them.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate “Boyhood,” and I’m not totally immune to its attributes. But for me it was, at best, OK, a film whose animating idea is more interesting than its actual satisfactions. Sharing in the zeal of its advocates, being as on fire as Moses was when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the law — that just isn’t in the cards for me.
In part because I don’t consider myself an enemy of “Boyhood” and didn’t want to rain on its parade, I ended up not reviewing the film when it arrived in theaters. I’m departing from that original impulse for a variety of reasons: because I believe there can be value to the culture of film in being out of step, because I feel an obligation to readers to express solidarity with those few who share my doubts, and to go on the record about the most talked-about film of the year.
But mostly it’s because being so out of step called up so many disconcerting thoughts and feelings in me — about the film, about the process and culture of reviewing, even about what it means to be a critic and who I am as a person — that I simply had to write them down.
Though I am far from a contrarian and honestly don’t enjoy being the only person who doesn’t get it, I’ve been in this position before. I caught a lot of grief from fans as well as writer-director James Cameron when I took objection to “Titanic,” and even before that when I was less than enthralled by Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” one of whose partisans recently tweeted me to ask if, 20 years after the fact, I regretted my dunderheaded negativity. (For the record, I don’t.) And just last week I got an email about my 1999 “Fight Club” review, asking: “Do you ever look back, re-watch a movie and think, wow, I blew it?”
But being lukewarm to “Boyhood” felt like a different order of thing, like being disconnected from my aesthetic roots. This was no violent blockbuster one could feel free to disdain but a film I was supposed to embrace, a small independent effort whose interest in humanistic themes, character development and interpersonal drama were elements that matter the most to me. I should have been front and center in applauding “Boyhood” rather than remaining cold to its charms.
So, because I am prone to it, the second-guessing began: Had I missed something, had I been asleep at the wheel (metaphorically, not literally, though the film does run a leisurely 2 hours and 44 minutes)? Should I be court-martialed for dereliction of critical duty? Had I made some kind of mistake?
Since I consider reviews to be expressions of personal taste and consequently believe it’s completely misguided to look at unpopular or out-of-step opinions as mistakes, the blunder option was not open to me. So I decided to take advice from one of my personal heroes, Sherlock Holmes, who famously decreed: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” What was it about me as a critic that had led me down a path where no one else followed?
For one thing, I find that as I get older and younger filmmakers focus more and more on their own young years, I have become increasingly resistant to coming-of-age stories, which at its core is what “Boyhood” is. Living through my own childhood was unnerving enough; I don’t take pleasure in living through someone else’s unless there is as good a reason as two personal favorites, Ken Loach’s “Kes” and Jean-Claude Lauzon’s “Léolo,” provided.
Also, though it feels literally sacrilegious to say so in the light of all the devotion “Boyhood” has received, not to mention all the work that went into it, the “12 years, one cast” aspect of the film felt, in all honesty, a bit like a gimmick to me, especially in the light of the heroic work Michael Apted has done with his “Up” series of documentaries, which have looked at the same group of individuals every seven years from age 7 to age 56, and counting. Compared with the insights and surprises the multiple hours half a century of footage provide, “Boyhood” feels a bit like a Readers Digest Condensed version for those who don’t want to take the time to see the Apted films in their entirety.
Finally — and this is critical — I have always been cool to Linklater’s films, have never connected emotionally to his self-involved characters and a slacker aesthetic that treats banalities as if they were words of wisdom. Though “Boyhood” could be his best film and certainly has its satisfying moments, its narrative feels fatally cobbled together, veering haphazardly from underdone moments to overdone melodramatic contrivance.
On one hand, the fuss about “Boyhood” emphasized to me how much we live in a culture of hyperbole, how much we yearn to anoint films and call them masterpieces, perhaps to make our own critical lives feel more significant because it allows us to lay claim to having experienced something grand and meaningful.
Ultimately, however, what thinking about “Boyhood” brought home, and not for the first time, is how intensely personal a profession criticism is. Whether we like it or not, even if expressing it makes us feel clueless and out of touch in our own eyes as well as the world’s, we cannot escape who we are and what does or does not move us. As I’ve said before and likely will have cause to say again, in the final analysis, as a critic either you’re a gang of one or you’re nothing at all.