Twitter vs. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

A Ben Stiller movie reveals problems in online film criticism

20th Century Fox

This past Saturday, the New York Film Festival hosted the world premiere of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story. While the evening showing elicited a standing ovation, the morning press screening ignited a firestorm among film critics, who took to Twitter with an outrage that bordered on ghoulish.

Some, like industry blogger Anne Thompson, called it a commercial “home run” and a sure-fire Oscar contender. Many more, sensing an easy 140-character kill, zeroed in on the film with ferocious glee, decrying it as a “totally misdirected mess,” “completely false” and Garden State for middle-aged office drones” (ouch).

It wasn’t long until the online battle cries got so loud—and the in-fighting so juvenile—that some pleaded for a truce. “If you didn’t like Mitty, you’re cynical. If you did, you’re middlebrow. Glad to see everyone drawing battle lines so quickly,” tweeted Drew McWeeny, a writer for the HitFix website, who later lamented the emerging “film criticism as sports fandom” trend.

McWeeny’s not wrong. With the advent of Twitter, each and every film critic with an account feels he or she must be the first out of the gate, with top marks (retweets) for those who deliver the most clever (mean) observations. It’s turned otherwise respected writers and thinkers into trolls, as if we’re all competing to be that one obnoxious online commenter who posts “First!” on message boards just for the sake of it (you know the type).

What’s lost in this online race are the basic tenets of respectable criticism: well-reasoned and expertly measured analysis. Anyone can be a quippy jokester, but to actually sit down and think about a film before writing something is a serious business, and a well-crafted and thoughtful review can make or break multi-million-dollar projects. It’s easy to be cruel, and difficult to be smart.

I’m not immune to this Twitter-first mentality, either. During this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I could barely wait for a picture’s end credits to roll before I pulled out my iPhone, trying desperately to come up with the funniest tweet possible while simultaneously navigating an emptying theatre’s crowds. Once, after a screening of Jude Law’s Dom Hemingway, I even managed to type out a quick tweet-review all while ordering a slice of pizza and arranging my next screening. Naturally, and quite deservedly, I misspelled the film’s title. (At this point, I should mention that Maclean’s resident film expert Brian D. Johnson is excluded from this debate, as he often goes out of his way to offer informed online criticism—even when limited to a mere tweet. And I write this not just because he sits five desks away from me.)

But as fun as it is to fire off 140-character film reviews—and to feel the rush of a half-dozen retweets, or the slightly less coveted “favourites”—it’s clear the practice is turning film criticism into something of a blood sport. It’s a world where there are only right or wrong opinions, with no room left for nuance.

While nearly every critic who rushes to Twitter also posts more thoughtful, measured critiques later on, the initial online chatter can be so brutal that the waters are irrevocably bloodied. Plus, to be blunt, it gives critics—typically not the most highly respected bunch among casual moviegoers—an air of elite privilege. Or, to be even more blunt, it makes us look like jerks.

So, a plea to fellow movie critics and writers: I know we’re not jerks (well, most of us), so let’s all try to stop acting like it. I promise to try to do the same.

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