The Critic-Proof Films of 2009

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 22 2009 10:48 AM

The Critic-Proof Films of 2009

Plug your ears and alert the kids: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel , the follow-up to 2007's surprise box-office smash, Alvin and the Chipmunks , opens on Friday. Besides being the silliest-titled sequel since Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo , the semi-animated, sonically assaultive jukebox comedy has a shot at achieving an elusive distinction: The Squeakquel might well be critic-proof .

Despite what you may have heard , very few Hollywood films are truly critic-proof. As Erik Lundegaard argued in Slate , and as Chadwick Matlin and Chris Wilson demonstrated for The Big Money , beyond the all-media blitz of a film's first weekend in theaters, negative reviews likely do affect long-term box-office prospects. Yet there are notable exceptions—like the original film in the Chipmunks series, which received a torrent of bad reviews but earned more than $200 million at the box office.
Using numerically based review aggregator Metacritic as a guide, we're defining as "critic-proof" those films that received "Generally Unfavorable" reviews (40 points or lower) yet still earned north of $100 million at the box office. So far, four 2009 films qualify: Couples Retreat ($107 M, 23 rating), Paul Blart: Mall Cop ($146 M, 39 rating), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra ($150 M, 32 rating), and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (the No. 1 film of the year at $402 M, 35 rating). So what defines this year's critic-proof cinema? Lowbrow comedy, high-concept, action-figure-inspired action, vehicular mayhem , and a titular taste for colons. If Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel is half as popular (and as critically loathed) as its predecessor, it will fit right in, rounding out a Teflon Five for 2009.

Considering how many dogs Hollywood produced and aggressively marketed this year, and considering the chronic dearth of choice and true competition at the multiplex, four critic-proof films is a surprisingly low number. Perhaps that's because, at Metacritic, the difference between "Mixed or Average" (a score between 40 and 60) and "Generally Unfavorable" (again, 40 points or lower) can be negligible. Barely spared the unfavorable (and by extension "critic-proof" tag) were films such as the $120 million earning, 41-rated G-Force (wherefore the animated rodent trend?) and the $180 million, 43-rated X-Men Origins: Wolverine , not to mention poorly received, big earners like Angels and Demons , Night at the Museum , and Twilight Saga: New Moon . Less than a third of the 27 films that earned $100 million or more received "Generally Favorable" reviews (though several, such as Up , were among the top five money-earners). Apparently "Average" moviemaking, rather than critic-baiting awfulness , is the most reliable route to box-office success.

Eric Hynes is a New York-based journalist and film critic.



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