BE BETTER

Brie Larson and the Horny Movie Review Epidemic

The New Yorker film critic says dads will have to cool their crotches while watching Mrs. Incredible. But when will we cool it on condoning misogyny in movie reviews?

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien

This week, The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane published a review that referenced the need to ice his raging boner. The movie in question was the highly tantalizing Incredibles 2, and the apple of Lane’s eye was none other than its celebrated star, Mrs. Helen Incredible.

Lane’s review reads like misguided satire, opening with his fantasy about the Incredible couple spending “a lazy afternoon in the marital boudoir with the door discreetly shut.” Later, he drools over “the husky-voiced Evelyn” and Helen’s “black mask, her long tall boots, and her empowering outfit, as tight as a second skin,” apparently oblivious to the irony of processing the “empowering” costume through a hearty male gaze. And then, most bizarrely, Lane shouts out to all the horny daddies of the world—just like, you know, the one who could only make it through the movie after he “rested his cooling soda firmly in his lap and, like Mr. Incredible, tried very hard to think of algebra.”

The review has been widely mocked on Twitter for its salacious overtones, made all the more kooky given Elastigirl’s status as an animated cartoon. But even if you interpret Lane’s assessment as an ill-conceived attempt at humor, this isn’t the first time he has been censured for objectifying takes on women.

In April, the tenured critic was taken to task for his analysis of Lola Kirke’s character in the neo-noir thriller Gemini. “She wears big jeans and a baggy gray top, while sporting the haircut from hell—brown bangs cut straight across, as if by a six-year-old with blunt scissors,” Lane writes in his review, adding that Kirke “requires no disguise; she is sphinxlike enough as it is.” The daft take might have slid by unnoticed if it hadn’t been for Kirke herself, who penned a plucky letter to the editor that appeared in the magazine two weeks later: “To deem unflattering the ‘big jeans’ and ‘baggy gray top’ I wear throughout the film is to suggest a preference for heroines in more tight-fitting clothes,” Kirke wrote with astonishing clairvoyance, foretelling Lane’s slobber-to-come over another heroine’s getup.

The real problem lies in a culture that neglects to retire evaluations of women that are jejune, insular, and glib.

Public objections similarly followed Lane’s 2014 New Yorker profile of Scarlett Johansson, which devoted an inordinate amount of time to recounting the illustrious actress’ sex appeal. “Would it be construed as trespass, therefore, to state that Johansson looks tellingly radiant in the flesh?” Lane writes, with what Slate’s Katy Waldman called “inappropriate-uncle creepiness.” And as complaints about Lane’s Incredibles 2 review mounted, some Twitter users resurfaced additional examples of crude remarks, such as Lane’s 2004 observation that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind “could have used a lengthy sex scene… Winslet, one knows, would have gone for it, although her co-star might have grown pale at the thought.”

The outcry over Lane recalls another critic’s public excoriation last year. New York Magazine’s David Edelstein was pilloried for a particularly hot and bothered review of the Gal Gadot-starring Wonder Woman. According to Edelstein, the titular character is a “perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness,” and he goes on to observe, “Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation.” The piece drew so much backlash that Edelstein was forced to issue an apologia, rescinding some of his language and venturing to justify the rest.

It’s impossible not to take these film-review scandals as a barometer of our evolving understanding of what constitutes good criticism. While onscreen beauty remains one of the essential joys of moviegoing, there’s a growing premium on fresh and illuminative ways of articulating that joy. We’re developing into shrewder readers, skeptical not only of sexism and misogyny, but of critical lenses that are stuffy and stale. It feels fortuitous that Lane’s lusty Incredibles 2 review should land just days after Brie Larson proclaimed the need for increased diversity among film critics, pointing to a USC Annenberg report that revealed: “Only 22.2 percent of the 19,559 reviews evaluated were written by females, with 77.8 percent crafted by male critics. This represents a gender ratio of 3.5 males to every 1 female reviewer. White critics wrote 82 percent of the reviews and critics from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds authored 18 percent.”

Larson said, “I don’t need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work about A Wrinkle in Time. It wasn’t made for him! I want to know what it meant to women of color, biracial women, to teen women of color.”

“Am I saying I hate white dudes? No, I am not,” she continued. “What I am saying is if you make a movie that is a love letter to women of color, there is an insanely low chance a woman of color will have a chance to see your movie, and review your movie.”

The problem isn’t that one reviewer—or several—seem to be fueled by clumsy mischief (at best) or lechery (at worst). The real problem lies in a culture that neglects to retire evaluations of women that are jejune, insular, and glib. In a world that already foregrounds female attractiveness as a key determinant of worth, scrutinizing women’s appearances is neither thought-provoking nor productive.

For the record, Helen is a hot mom. But I refuse to believe that naked libido is the most incredible critical faculty we can bring to our appreciation of her many powers.