Growing up, in high school especially, movies were the background to a lot of my life. They were the default activity when no others were available. My first experiences on my own were at the movies; so were my first encounters with girls and my first flirtations with crime (we would buy tickets to something rated “PG” and make our way to something rated “R”).
The point: movies are important to me, in an intangible way, and so I can’t wrap my head around the reductionist program embarked on by the website Rotten Tomatoes.
I’m sure you, like me and most of the people we know, have been on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s very tempting, especially if you are on the fence about seeing one movie or another. The website often likes to promote the wide-lensed snapshot it provides, of all the critical opinion around for just about any movie you can think of. In reality, though, most of us like to look at a movie’s percentage.
That is, the percentage of critics who came out generally in favor. Above 60 percent, a movie will earn a red, cartoonish, ripe tomato (to fit the theme), but below that, the movie earns what appears to be vomit splatter. The percentage is so easy, so simple and so eye-catching that some movies have even begun to advertise their agreeable scores.
But I take issue with the formulaic nature of Rotten Tomatoes ratings. For one thing, they tend to get things wrong, especially as we compare one movie’s score to another’s. Take “Forrest Gump,” which until recently I had believed to be universally beloved. It was a powerful experience the first time I saw it, and it’s a movie I’ll never forget. Well, “Forrest Gump” scored 71 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. “Top Critics Tomatometer,” with a large number of its contemporary critics feeling that it made American history too cutesy. To put that in perspective, “Forrest Gump” was sixteen percentage points lower than “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” an animated film in which the main character devises a machine capable of city-sized spaghetti.
How have we not come to the conclusion that the system is broken. If it has decided that “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” is a superior film to “Forrest Gump,” then I’ve decided that I can never trust another of its judgments. What’s even more frustrating, though, is that it seems like the inaccuracy of the Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” could hardly have been more obvious from the start. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that movies affect me on an intangible level. There’s no perfect formula for what I like and don’t like. Personally, I tend to think it’s actually a good sign if others are strongly divided — sometimes brilliance is controversial. In fact, often it is.
Plus, Rotten Tomatoes relies on the perspective of film critics, which is just as erratic as my own. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” is perhaps my favorite film, and it performs fairly well on Rotten Tomatoes. One of the critics who did not like it, however, was Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer, who was quoted to have said, “What this film may have needed to get on its feet is some honest-to-goodness violence.” Are you kidding me? Your negative review is that the drama in the movie was disconnected from violence. I don’t have anything against violence in the right circumstances, but to me “Magnolia’s” restraint in that regard was compelling. Too often violence is used as a cheap sucker-punch to create interest where by rights none exists.
Look, as far as this carries over into my feelings about Rotten Tomatoes, we might understand that in my case (and, I’m sure, in yours) sometimes a movie is hurt by a critic’s preference, especially if it directly contradicts my own.
I think anyone who could successfully distill quality into an algorithm would rightfully be a millionaire. The problem in the case of Rotten Tomatoes is that, despite their millions, their judgment of quality is still far from perfect.
Ben Moss gives Rotten Tomatoes a measly 41 percent.