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Fulfillment And Inventory Choice: Two Ways Of Looking At Adam Sandler In Drag

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
November 14, 2011

Adam Sandler’s latest, Jack & Jill, which features him alongside himself playing a man and his uncouth sister, made $26 million this weekend, earned from audiences a CinemaScore of B (that’s a rating that comes from audiences who have actually seen the movie), and is holding at a 3 percent approval rating from critics at the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The same thing has happened many, many times before — audiences go, audiences feel satisfied, and critics feel ill.

So are the critics doing it wrong? Are the audiences foolish? Are the two groups out of touch? It’s a great example, but by far not the only example, of the fact that there are two ways to answer the question, “How was the movie?”

The first, we might call the fulfillment model. Not fulfillment in the sense of personal or spiritual or even naughty fulfillment, but in the sense of the fulfillment of an order at a business. It’s the part of the dictionary definition that refers to the verb “fulfill” meaning “to meet the requirements of.”

An audience that gives a CinemaScore rating to a film is most often using a fulfillment model. They came; they paid; were they satisfied? Did they get what they paid for? Did they get what they thought they would get? It’s hard, after all, to believe (though I haven’t seen it myself) that Jack & Jill is somehow not as advertised. It’s certainly not difficult to make the film they’re promoting here; it would take about a half-hour to write if you had enough beer.

The other model is an inventory choice model, and the more films you see, the more you apply that model, I think. That’s a model that examines not only whether the order was fulfilled, but what kind of an inventory the business is offering. It’s the equivalent of walking into a coffee shop that only carries instant coffee and saying, “This is fine instant coffee, and if I knew I was ordering instant coffee, I’d feel I got what I paid for. But it’s disappointing that you’re running a coffee shop and can’t be freaking bothered to brew coffee.”

Good critics reflect some of both models in their writing, comparing a film not only to an elusive ideal of what film is meant to be and what it can accomplish, but also to that particular film’s theoretical best self. “Is Jack & Jill an objectively good movie?” is a slightly different question from “Is this the best Jack & Jill they could have made?”

At times, audiences who read negative reviews of movies like Jack & Jill and believe that the purpose of a review is purely the role it plays in entertainment consumerism get very frustrated. Doesn’t the critic, they wonder, understand what the movie is? It’s not supposed to be Shaaakespeare,” they sigh over and over. Why discuss the poor writing? Why criticize the poor acting? Why talk about how broad and dumb and predictable it is?

And that’s true, up to a point. If the only evil that can be done by filmmakers and studios is to rip off the unwary — to essentially advertise one thing and sell another — then there’s absolutely no point in reviewing a Sandler-in-drag movie at all, other than to say, “He does, in fact, appear in drag and talk in funny voices.”

But if you apply a pure version of the fulfillment model — satisfied audiences mean a good film — the voices of everyone who knew what the film would be and didn’t choose to go are ignored. The CinemaScore grade, after all, is not a grade assigned by the viewing public as a whole. It’s assigned by the segment people who chose to go to the movie. Those are essentially the people who are satisfied at a minimal level with what’s on offer.

Good criticism and commentary that relentlessly points out that the acting in a bad movie is bad, that the writing is poor, that the plot is unimaginative — that pans the film in spite of its ability to please its audience — isn’t indicting that audience, but is evaluating the baseline quality of the inventory and, in a sense, representing audiences as well. It’s representing the interests of the audiences that want something else.

It’s not that critics don’t know what an Adam Sandler movie is supposed to be or don’t know that people who choose to go are likely to feel like they got what they paid for.

It’s that when you move in the world of large studio releases in particular, it’s easy to feel like you are in what’s supposed to be a shoe store but sells nothing but paper slippers. They’re all labeled “paper slippers,” and as such, they satisfy. But you find yourself wandering up and down the aisles saying, “Where are the shoes? Can’t I get shoes? These are fine, but they are not shoes, and it seems like somebody somewhere should still sell shoes at a shoe store, because although I understand that paper slippers have their uses, if somebody doesn’t point out that none of these are shoes, people will forget what shoes are, and in ten years, there won’t even be paper slippers here, just cotton balls you’re supposed to tape to the bottom of your feet and FOR THE LOVE OF LITTLE APPLES WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE SELL ME SOME SHOES?”

This is the inventory choice model. It’s not consumerism in the narrow sense of the right of the consumer to be sold what he believes he’s buying when he’s at the register. It’s advocating for the right of the consumer to be offered something better at the manufacturing stage.

So there’s really no disconnect between critics and audiences when it comes to movies not made to please critics. Everybody who reviewed Jack & Jill understood what it was, knew what it was aiming for before they got there, and undoubtedly understands that few people would be asking for their money back. Don’t envision those critics shaking their fists, wagging their fingers, or scouring silly movies looking for deeper meaning.

Just picture them standing there, slippers in hand, saying calmly but firmly, “These. Are. Not. Shoes.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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