Here at The A.V. Club, courtesy of the commentariat, we like to refer to D- reviews as receiving “the gentleman’s F,” because offering a failing grade would be undignified, like throwing feces from the monkey cage. Our grading system is flawed, like any ratings system tends to be, but it gets especially arbitrary at its lower registers, when critics have to decide what particular strain of terrible means the difference between a D, the gentleman’s F, and the nuclear option. The last movie I awarded a D- was Playing For Keeps, the latest in a run of excruciating Gerard Butler romantic comedies, this one about an ex-soccer star trying to make amends with his ex-wife (Jessica Biel) and kid while scoring with various soccer moms. Beyond my desire to be a civilized man and not a shit-hurling savage, I asked this question: “What, exactly, is oh-so-marginally redeeming about this movie?” Normally, in bad movies featuring Judy Greer, the answer would be “Judy Greer.” But she embarrasses herself as a desperate single mother who literally throws herself at Butler’s feet.
Then it occurred to me: Playing For Keeps got the better rating because it’s bland. Flavorless. Conventional. Conforming utterly to expectation. By and large, I much prefer the movies I’ve given an F over those I’ve given a D-, or often well above. In other words, when the Atlas Shrugged trilogy finally ends with Dagny Taggart tossing Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States into the fires of Mordor, I’ll be there on opening day, queuing up with my lightsaber and my Glenn Beck Rally To Restore Honor T-shirt. If the third Atlas Shrugged film is anything like the first two, it’ll be cheap, incompetently staged, atrociously acted, and unctuous to its core, but at least it’ll be an experience. On the other hand, if I had to watch a few more rom-coms like Playing For Keeps in succession, I’d consider looking into a new career breaking ships in Bangladesh.
Reviewing Because I Said So, New York Times critic A.O. Scott used a phrase that has stayed with me: “deliberate mediocrity.” As in, “[it’s] a mild exercise in deliberate mediocrity, with chuckles and heartwarming moments distributed as carefully as nuts in a factory-made brownie.” (The romantic-comedy genre is an especially common offender, to the point where so-called torture porn has a higher success rate for me than rom-coms. What is Did You Hear About The Morgans? other than an apparatus designed to place a stammering Hugh Grant next to a grizzly bear?) Deliberate mediocrity is the most pernicious creative instinct, mainly because it rarely gets commented on. A couple dozen Because I Said Sos come out every year, but they aren’t going to get the apocalyptic reviews of an odd duck like the sketch comedy Movie 43, or a calamitous passion project like Battlefield Earth. Reviewing the former, the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick called it the worst film he’d seen since he started reviewing them in 1981, and likened it to a mash-up of the “worst parts” of bombs like Howard The Duck, Gigli, and Ishtar, the latter two of which are far more compelling than half the movies released in a given year. (Ishtar is, in fact, excellent.) By contrast, deliberate mediocrities will come out, critics will shrug, audiences may or may not have anything better to do, and the soul-deadening calculation will continue.
A month ago, Will Leitch touched on this phenomenon in a great piece on Deadspin called “It’s Not OK To Be Shitty: Guy Fieri, BuzzFeed, And The Tyranny Of Stupid Popular Things.” At the time, the viral sensation of Pete Wells’ New York Times pan of Fieri’s Times Square restaurant had triggered a backlash along the lines of, “What else did he expect?” or, “Why is this snooty critic bagging on some Broadway food trough anyway?” Wells’ rhetorical bomb-throwing struck a chord, but the core of that piece is a rejection of any enterprise that starts with a goal other than to do something great. Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar is about branding. It’s about putting 500 asses in 500 seats, and funneling enough “donkey sauce” down their gullets to get them through the next showing of Jersey Boys. It’s about marketable concepts—creations that might seem like they come from diners, drive-ins, and dives—but without the authenticity and soul. And it’s remarkable how passively we accept that premise, that something so impersonal and calculated could be given a pass. Or worse, not warrant a review at all, because we shouldn’t expect better.
Film critics can’t be so selective. We see everything: the good, the bad, and the exceedingly bland. And slashing and burning through everything that doesn’t rise to a certain standard isn’t a healthy instinct, because it all becomes noise after a while. A few more reviews like his Guy Fieri takedown, and Wells would become a dumb sideshow like Peter Finch’s “mad as hell” anchor in Network. But too often, our contempt is misplaced, settling on movies that provoke us rather than the ones that bore us. Yes, the outrageously terrible likes of Atlas Shrugged Part II or The Paperboy deserve to be called out, but neither film can be faulted for lacking a point of view, however risible that point of view may be. But bad movies are better than useless ones: There was some question at the beginning of Nathan Rabin’s My Year Of Flops column over a ratings scale that distinguished between “failure” and “fiasco.” To me, it’s a much more useful system than parsing out the differences between a D and an F: As Nathan has demonstrated many times, fiascoes have the virtue of being compelling, of crashing and burning and leaving rubberneckers with some twisted wreckage. Failures try for nothing, and if they flop, achieve no payoff for compromise. They should be dropped from a great height.
With that in mind, here’s a partial list of the most useless films I saw in 2012: Quartet, Lay The Favorite, Playing For Keeps (also among the worst), Hitchcock, $upercapitalist, L!fe Happens, Sushi: The Global Catch, ATM, Dark Tide, and the remakes of Red Dawn, Pusher, and Total Recall. Several earned better than the gentleman’s F, but none deserved the courtesy.