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16 November 2005 — Overrated (3)

Somebody on AskMetafilter recently wondered "What are some of the most over-rated movies you've ever seen?" Though, as you might expect, the discussion was overflowing with subjectivity, there were also some interesting observations. One commenter noted that it's possible for a film be both good and overrated, as in those well-reviewed small art films that don't lend themselves to mass appeal. More often, however, it is the over-hyped blockbusters of mediocre quality that seem to garner more acclaim than their modest pretensions can bear.

The AskMe commenters considered Forrest Gump the most over-rated film they'd seen. The Lord of the Rings trilogy took second place, and there was a three-way tie for third between Napoleon Dynamite, Titanic, and the most recent Star Wars trilogy.

I noted that recent years have often seen the Oscar for best picture go to overhyped, overrated films in lieu of films of greater merit. I make a point of seeing all the Best Picture nominees each year. Each of the following struck me as overrated and undeserving: Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, The Return of the King (aka Peter Jackson's The Long Goodbye).

This trend is not new, however. Last night, Kris and I watched an overrated film from 1973. How The Sting managed to win eight Oscars (including Best Picture over The Exorcist) and rake in a pile of dough is beyond me.

The Sting was released when I was four years old. All I can remember of it is how for a time the film's theme song — Scott Joplin's piano rag "The Entertainer" — seemed to be everywhere. Over the past thirty-two years, I've picked up something of the plot, but until last night I had never seen the film.

The film is set in 1936 Chicago, at the height of The Depression. The prohibition-era gangsters are gone, but their legacy lives on in small-time hoods and grifters, and in organized dens of iniquity throughout the city. One of these small-time players is Johnny Hooker. When one of his scams accidentally nets $10,000 he finds himself playing for even bigger stakes. His partner is killed, so he seeks the help of Henry Gondorff, a big-time con artist. Together, they orchestrate an elaborate revenge.

The film is stylish, but its style seems a sort of melange of different early twentieth century eras. The score is all ragtime piano, music that was popular in the late 1890s and early 1900s, not in 1936. (That's like using big band music for a film set during the 1970s.) The costumes look more 1920s than the 1930s.

The sets also contribute to this patchwork quality. Many of the interior shots were shot on soundstage. (Even the golf scene was shot on a sound stage.) Most of the exterior scenes make obvious use of a studio backlot. I don't mind soundstages and backlots, but it's nice when they're less obtrusive.

The film has other problems. There's a subplot with a sort-of-love-interest that makes little sense and serves no purpose. It ought to have been excised from the script. The director isn't content to cut between scenes, but uses an array of distracting wipes. This works for George Lucas in his Star Wars films, but it doesn't work here. Because of the extensive use of sound stages and back lots, the entire movie has a stage-y feel, as if adapted from a play. (Kris and I both noted this independently of each other.) I got the impression that Robert Redford (as Johnny Hooker) was supposed to be playing a young punk in this film, somebody maybe 21-years-old, yet at the time the film was made he was 35- years-old and he looks it.

Though The Sting is likable enough, it's ultimately forgettable popcorn fluff. There's nothing there. It left me with a sort of empty feeling. "Is that all there is?" I asked kris when it was finished, but she only shrugged. It's not that the film is bad; it just isn't good. It feels like average entertainment. Why is it so revered? To me, it's just another overrated movie.

On this day at foldedspace.org

2006Power Nap   In which I discover the joys of a directed nap.

2003The Literary Canon   In which I meditate at length on the nature of the literary canon.


Comments
On 16 November 2005 (04:51 PM), J.D. said:

Testing. I've had two people say that can't comment. Testing.


On 16 November 2005 (04:51 PM), Lynn said:

I hate when I hear about how great a film is and then watch it, only to be disappointed because I expected too much. Also, I hate when I really like a film and then people just won't let it go, a la "Napoleon Dynamite," and I grow tired of it.


On 17 November 2005 (04:45 PM), Joel said:

It's funny to hear that the Star Wars prequels made the overrated list, despite the fact that every review I read sought to out-do all previous reviewers in heaping scorn upon George Lucas' head. Maybe I'm just reading the right reviewers.
Of course, the AskMe folks are probably basing this on what they heard from amateur critics, i.e. their friends and neighbors, a source that I usually avoid when it comes to choosing movies. It's sometimes alarming to me how dependent I am on a few movie review sites (The New Yorker, The Onion's AV club, and Rotten Tomatoes) to make my choices for me.

Napoleon Dynamite is a classic case of hype scaring me away from a film. It has become a pointless, sad, and perverse point of pride for me not to understand people's references to the film, as though I were a stranger to this thing called America. Or maybe just an old person.