I recall a while back that a fellow critic took offense when I referred to Noah Baumbach's Greenberg as "not an audience-friendly film."
He felt that I was using the term pejoratively -- as though I was saying there was something wrong with any film that didn't make a specific point of trying to connect with its audience. Though I explained that it was not meant as a slur but as a simple descriptive, he still wasn't satisfied.
I continue to believe, however, that the term has validity, particularly as a way for critics to describe a film in a way that is helpful to the reader.
I'm not making judgments about either side of this equation. I'd say I like films that are audience-friendly as often as I do the more challenging ones. It depends on the film itself.
You know what an audience-friendly film is. It tells a story that engages you about characters you can like and root for. It doesn't have to be just a comedy, though that's always a helpful element. But something like 42 is the pinnacle of the audience-friendly work of popular culture -- and it's certainly not a comedy.
Yet those films -- movies that seek to tell a story that uplifts or inspires -- often get short shrift from critics for that reason alone. This week, for example, 42 is being slagged by some critics for being manipulative -- as though all movies are not manipulative to one degree or another. 42 happens to be a well-made and extremely involving story about an important moment in history. The fact that it works on the viewer emotionally, however, is often seen as a negative by critics who aren't comfortable with movies that deal with feelings, rather than ideas or theories.
I don't think those particular elements -- a story you can follow, characters you like and root for -- are disqualifiers for a film that can be exciting, entertaining, even mystifying. That's the bread-and-butter of the box-office chart: movies that appeal to an audience. To too many critics, however, appealing to an audience and pandering to it are inextricably linked. That's as much an erroneous generalization as saying that all films that go in the opposite direction are the only true art: plotless character studies, impressionistic slice of life, nonlinear puzzle films.
Those are the films I would classify as not being audience-friendly.
This commentary continues on my website.