The Lone Ranger: A Mild Defense of Sour Grapes

August 6, 2013

THE LONE RANGER

Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp must be greatly annoyed that notable US Box Office flop The Lone Ranger didn’t open overseas day and date, as has been the trend with tentpoles over the past decade or so.  Now they’ve been forced into the unenviable position of promoting a film that is already leaden with bad press (and bad reviews).  To summarize, both Hammer and Depp blame the movie’s Stateside failure on critics who pre-judged due to the troubled production news that was, quite frankly, everywhere.  Now, briefly, let’s pause for a series of “on the one hand”:

  • On the One Hand: Wealthy people boo-hooing about people not liking their work to the press.
  • On the Other Hand: God, promotion must be a tedious bitch of a thing, and I can only imagine they weren’t in the best of moods to continue on after the initial drubbing, so cut them some lack.
  • On the One Hand:  Oh fucking sour grape bastards, the star and director of this film made two Pirates sequels that were absolutely (and rightly) drubbed as nonsensical cash-ins that still made boatloads of money, so you can’t establish the “critic-proof” film that “audiences really like” and then bitch about critics when the audience doesn’t see your next one.
  • On the Other Hand: Okay, maybe there’s no way to blame critics for the financial failure of the film, but there’s a kernel of truth to their notion that critics had “pre-written” their reviews 8 months before, even if that’s taking it to an extreme.  Critical reception was pretty harsh given what was on screen, and some of the reactions belie a sense of “blood in the water” pile-on.

First of all, it is by no means a rule of thumb that critics love to take down big budget movies with troubled productions.  Titanic, after all, was both a critical and commercial success despite the media narrative leading up to it as a massive folly.  Avatar was kinder in the run-up, but again, that budget was all over the headlines.  Outside of Cameron, just this year critics were a bit kinder to World War Z than even I thought they should have been, and that wasn’t particularly well liked.  Still, there wasn’t as much harshness as there was with The Lone Ranger.  I’m very broadly generalizing here, by the way, as some people hated World War Z and others defended The Lone Ranger.  Still, I think the generalization stands just enough to be useful in making a point.

Now, the other thing one has to consider is that film critics aren’t the same as all film-based media.  Critics can savage a film like Grown Ups 2 and it can still do moderately well, and the narrative built around it is “Adam Sandler back on top” from the Entertainment Tonight scene.  That media run-up, and especially one where the box office results come in for the opening weekend (which is all that is required to determine a flop), is much more on the average filmgoer’s radar than the critics, and those organizations love to create bad narratives because it helps with ratings.  Who doesn’t love to see the hubristic, egotistical studios and stars fall flat on their face in full view of the public?  If anything ruined The Lone Ranger beyond the simple facts that it’s a property with no real pull with anyone under the age of 40 and Westerns famously don’t do huge numbers, it was the entertainment media’s bashing, not the critical response.  It was hardly unexpected that the chattering hordes of “showbiz news” types would latch onto it, either.  Last year, Disney also had a big budget, formerly popular but now obscure property wannabe franchise starter flop in John Carter, and though that film was also better than a number of critics gave it credit for, it wasn’t their negative reviews but the “$250 million!” budget that anybody who heard about the film at all couldn’t escape.  Now, for me, I feel there’s a difference between Carter and Ranger – although I admit I liked both to some degree, though the latter much more so – that might explain why Depp and co. were miffed at the critical reaction.

Before I get into that, I think it’s worth addressing the outrage some critics have voiced on Twitter and various other places to the co-stars’ remarks.  There’s a fair amount of huffing about “we just reviewed what was on screen”, as though critics are immune to everything but precisely what they see.  Some are better than others at it, sure, and there’s a degree of professionalism that everyone in their field hopes to achieve, but criticism is first and foremost subjective, and to say that the anti-hype surrounding The Lone Ranger didn’t play a part in at least some of the critics’ reviews is disingenuous.  Even when it was first announced that it was 150 minutes, there was outrage, as if to be “how dare they make me sit through that amount of time for The Lone Ranger”.  The running time is, unfortunately, not in the least bit exceptional for summer tentpoles, and that’s been the case for at least half a decade now.  I personally found The Dark Knight Rises to have a number of more significant problems than this, and it ran at least 10 minutes longer with nobody really batting an eye.  Sure, some are going to find this film more boring than others, but it’s difficult not to notice the number of times it was singled out as one of the major flaws and not consider that to be latching onto the narrative of “bloated excess” that followed the film around since its production.

Now, back to John Carter and a postulation as to why Depp and Hammer were miffed at the critical reception.  JC had some nice personal touches dotted throughout, but for me its success came in its clean narrative lines and enjoyable action set pieces.  That film did have something of the stench of film-by-committee about it, even if it was allowed to be decent besides that.  It’s a little unfair; considering the original narrative has been endlessly ripped off in the century or so since it was published.  Coming out when it did, it felt like a predictable also-ran.  Still, it was hardly an adventurous picture with its style and its themes.  Really, it just felt safe enough that the studio brass either made sure it was or just let it be because it was.  Certain critics, like Mick LaSalle, have charged that The Lone Ranger is a cynical cash-in on a property, and that Verbinski has fought to play it safe.  What came across to me was that The Lone Ranger was, of all damn things, a $200 million passion project.  Grossly over-expensive to be sure, but it does not feel created by a committee.  If it has any central, it’s not that it wants to be a Western; it wants to be all Westerns.  From heart eating to Comanche massacres to train-fights to a bizarre framing device, the film is all over the place in a way that anyone wanting to “play it safe” would never allow.  If there was a creative problem that caused its box office failure, it might have been that it was calibrated too much for cinephiles and not enough for the mass audience.  It’s littered with references to classic and not-so-classic Westerns, and its narrative is one that subverts the original character’s general ethos in favour of the Revisionist Western that has long since become the norm.  It’s hardly original territory, and I can understand why a lot of people didn’t like it.  But to hate it seems harsh, and the lambast it for just another Hollywood excess when it is clearly infused with a certain amount of creative joy and excitement – derivative though it may be – seems extremely harsh, especially when so many bland blockbusters are given marginal passes by a lot of the same critics who savaged this one.  I can imagine Depp and Hammer and Verbinski being a bit annoyed considering they probably felt at least the cinephiles would have fun and appreciate what they were trying to do.

Just to be clear, there are a number of excellent critics who both liked and disliked The Lone Ranger for perfectly understandable reasons, and they wrote about them well and seemed to treat the movie fairly.  The actors are completely off their rockers if they genuinely think that critics killed the movie, other than to add one more line to the entertainment media’s reporting of the flop as a “critical failure” as well.  I stand by the film as messy but occasionally so joyous and fun that it fulfilled the summer blockbuster requirements of enjoyment better than almost every other one this summer.  And allow me to be hypocritical:  if a movie costs that much and can still be weird, goofy, occasionally surreal, and personal, then it deserves extra credit.

-M

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