Can Public Enemies really be that bad?

“Critical consensus,” that vague sense of agreement measured by aggregator sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, isn’t exactly a reliable indicator of quality. Still, the one thing it is good for is providing a ballpark of what to expect from a film — so it can be off-putting, especially as a critic, to find yourself too far outside that ballpark.

Sometimes the disconnect is understandable. Last year’s Hellboy II wasn’t much of a movie if you value well-written dialogue and storylines that make some effort to avoid Chernobyl-sized plot holes. It was unarguably pretty, though, and had some well-designed monsters. I could see why some folks might’ve liked it enough to earn the movie a 78 per cent rating on Metacritic, even if I thought it was hopelessly trite.

It works the other way, too. I thought Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool was a masterwork of horror minimalism and a great twist on the zombie genre; it was a movie that could be called great without having to qualify that with “for a Canadian film.” Critics in general apparently found it too talkie, with not enough zombies. Fair enough.

Which brings me to Michael Mann’s new Dillinger biopic, Public Enemies. I’ve never found myself so removed from the critical consensus. Writers I’ve respected for years are calling it their favourite film of 2009. I just don’t get it.

To me, Mann’s film is an unlovable mess. The script refuses to glamourize its subjects, but it also refuses to do anything else with them, like, say, providing some sort of insight into their lives. The direction is distractingly flashy, avoiding establishing shots in favour of disorienting close-ups and out-of-focus over-the-shoulder angles. The acting is generally laughable. Worst of all, the digital video looks almost disgustingly cheap — more like a low-budget Canadian TV drama from the ’90s than a big-budget gangster thriller. My reaction upon leaving the theatre wasn’t “That was disappointing” as much as “My God, how did that get released?”

So what happens now? Do I turn in my critic’s card in shame? Do I re-watch it to see what I’m missing? Or can I safely say that if a film banks on style over substance and the style does nothing but grate on me, it’s a failure as far as I’m concerned? Maybe there is a lesson here — even for film reviewers, you’ve gotta take the critics with a grain of salt.

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