No, I didn’t call your shitty movie a “comedic masterstroke”

No, I didn’t call your shitty movie a “comedic masterstroke”

An open letter to Mongrel Media

Dear Mongrel Media,

You owe me an apology. Sorry to just come right out and say it, but I really don’t know how else to proceed. You know what you’ve done. Isn’t it time to come clean and make amends?

Look, I get why you did it. Here you were, burdened with the impossible task of getting people to buy or rent a movie that basically no one liked. And by “basically no one,” I don’t just mean fellow critics like myself, who were unkind in their reviews, or audiences, who mostly just stayed away. I’m also talking about the movie’s own director, who took his name off the thing before it was even finished. That’s a lot of negativity for a distributor to work around. I sympathize. I really do.

Not that you don’t know, but I’m referring, of course, to Nailed, the “lost” David O. Russell movie you put out on DVD and Blu-ray in Canada. (We called it Accidental Love down here in the States. It does indeed look like an accident—the kind you might see on the side of the road.) Russell, that gifted conductor of screwball chaos, shot Nailed between I Heart Huckabees and The Fighter. The production faced multiple financial setbacks, and after trying to salvage it for years, the writer-director finally walked away in 2010. The version you’ve released on unsuspecting consumers was completed without his involvement—a shame not just for the movie, which is a total mess, but also for folks like yourself, who couldn’t even sell it as “from the director of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.” The best you can hope for is that no one decides to Google “Stephen Greene” while browsing for Blu-rays at Best Buy.

I’m not sure how or why you acquired the home-video rights to this total folly of a film. Who sold you that bill of goods? I know that Mongrel handles the Canadian theatrical releases of Sony Pictures Classics titles. It’s possible that you snagged Nailed in some deal with another distributor. Or maybe it was just really, really cheap to pick up, and you figured, “Why the hell not?” I’d like to imagine that you somehow didn’t know the troubled history of this film and bought it sight unseen, banking on its pedigree alone. A political comedy directed by David O. Russell, co-written by Kristin Gore (daughter of Al), and starring Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal sure sounds like something worth seeing.

Hell, I knew the film’s troubled history, and I was still excited to see it. Surely, I thought, there must be glimmers of Russell’s talent and energy in the finished product, even if he didn’t direct every scene or sit in on the editing process. Well, the glimmers are there, for sure. I’d even go as far to say that Nailed is recognizably a Russell movie, no matter how much the filmmaker cries otherwise. But it’s also a misbegotten hatchet job—a movie of wildly disparate acting styles, of erratic shifts in tone, of jokes butchered by choppy editing. My curiosity satiated, I slapped the film with a for-fans-only C- and moved on with my life.

So imagine my surprise, months after my review went up, when a Twitter user reached out to inform me, via photographic evidence, that I had become—in Canada at least—one of the film’s most enthusiastic supporters. Here’s the back cover of your own DVD release, just as a quick reminder of what you did.

Funny, I don’t remember calling the film “a comedic masterstroke.” In fact, even “comedic” is a bit of a stretch; at best, one could say of Nailed that it approximates the general appearance of something attempting to elicit laughter. What I actually said, as you well know, is this:

To be fair to whoever refashioned Accidental Love from the abandoned scraps of Nailed, there’s little reason to believe that the ideal, untroubled version of the material would have been a comedic masterstroke.

Did you think I wouldn’t find out, Mongrel, just because you’re all the way up there in Canada? This is the internet age, dudes. Word travels. Obviously, you’re not the first distributor to twist a critic’s words out of context (though this is among the most egregious misquotes I’ve ever seen). In fact, the practice has become so common that it regularly inspires pissy and/or amused pieces just like this one. In my experience, the days of distributors actually seeking permission to repurpose a line from a review are waning; when I do get asked, which is rare, it’s usually for a movie I’d have no qualms endorsing.

I think most critics would agree that there’s a certain, uncomplicated thrill in seeing your name and words printed in bold letters as enticement. I’d be lying, Mongrel, if I denied the flush of pride I felt when I discovered that the trailers for Boyhood and Whiplash—my two favorite movies of last year—both pulled single-word exclamations from my Sundance dispatches. Beyond the ego boost of realizing that maybe, just maybe, my name could hold some sway over viewing habits, these pull quotes helped get the word out on a couple of cherished films. If there’s any nobility in criticizing other people’s work for a living, it’s in the capacity to put asses in seats—to get people to watch something they might not otherwise watch. At his very best, a critic is a cheerleader for films that need support. Go ahead and rearrange my writing if the point being conveyed is still “See this movie!”

It’s when our words are misused to create a recommendation where no recommendation exists that critics begin to resent the whole pull-quote system. It’s dirty pool, Mongrel, and you know it. You’re breaking the bond of trust between a critic and the public; if I lead anyone astray—and I’m sure you could find plenty of readers of this site who feel that I have—it’s by way of a difference in opinion, not malicious intent. Framing me as a big fan of Nailed isn’t just a lie, it’s an attack on my critical reputation. What if someone reads that and really thinks I see a “comedic masterwork” in Nailed? They’ll never trust me on a comedy again!

And thing is, these cheap tricks hurt everyone. That’s right, Mongrel: I’m looking out for you, too. Never mind that in an era when it’s collectors, increasingly, who are buying the DVDs and Blu-rays, associating your brand with such underhanded tactics may not be the wisest move. (You don’t see Criterion fabricating the essays they package with their movies.) When consumers stop trusting blurbs, they start ignoring them—and that has a negative effect on both critics, who lose their power of influence, and distributors, who lose their ability to sell a film with good reviews. A mutually beneficial relationship is compromised.

Everyone makes mistakes, Mongrel. You’re not a bad distributor; a look at your website reveals a strong, ever-expanding slate of theatrical and home-video releases. (This year alone, you’ve brought everything from It Follows to Wild Tales to Clouds Of Sils Maria to Canadian theaters.) You should be proud of the role you’re playing in cinema culture. But you should also be embarrassed to lower yourself to the level of a Hollywood huckster—especially when, to be honest, you had better options for a blurb than my strictly negative review. Bilge Ebiri of Vulture wasn’t huge on the film either, but he was more enthusiastic about its unique weirdness, coming up with such vaguely quotable lines as “flashes of Russell’s genius shine through the chaos.” And if you need a replacement blurb for all the new copies of the film that will soon be flooding stores—because, surely, it’s been selling like hotcakes with a recommendation from yours truly slapped on the box—The A.V. Club contributor Nathan Rabin wrote a borderline positive appraisal for Playboy. Mine that bad boy for some good words.

Ultimately, I just want to make things right between us, Mongrel. Don’t bother recalling all the misleadingly packaged copies of Nailed, which are just sitting on shelves as I type this, tantalizing prospective buyers with misattributed sentiments. No, all I really want is an apology, and maybe a promise that you won’t pull this kind of stunt again. Because when you turn your allies in the critical community into unwitting shills, it’s the film-buying public that really gets nailed.

All the best,

A.A. Dowd
The A.V. Club

P.S. Let me know if you need an official blurb for the It Follows Blu-ray. That I’m happy to sign off on.

UPDATE: Mongrel Media has apologized.