Spring Breakers, and the problem with film reviews

How do you review a film as raucous and perplexing as Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers? Simon lays out the problems...

Walking away from a screening of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers last week, I was hit with a bit of a problem. Basically: I didn’t know how to review it.

The basic requirement of someone going in to review a movie, is that you can come away from said film with an opinion, and the guts of an 800 word review with a star rating at the bottom. The vast majority of the time of course, that’s entirely the case. Granted, the modern day rush to get a review online within an hour of the credits rolling (we’ve been guilty of this in the past) tends to cut down on the increasingly valuable thinking and gestating time, but most people can come up with a reaction to most material in pretty quick order.

A reaction to Spring Breakers is certainly what I had, but then it brought to mind a bit of an unsaid about film criticism, that it’d be remiss not to bring up. That film critics are expected to have something to say about everything, from Dunston Checks In through to Rashomon. And sometimes, that’s impossible.

Film, after all, is a broader church than ever before, as diverse as books, and arguably more so than even theatre. In theatre criticism, so broad are the genres involved, that you wouldn’t ordinarily send the opera buff to review the pantomime, nor would a fan of serious drama necessarily get the call to go and see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest life-sapper. There seems more an acceptance in theatre that some people aren’t the right choice to review certain productions. You do get that in film too, but not always quite as much.

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Film, after all, is a far more accessible medium, and as a result, more of us inevitably access a broader range of material. That’s a healthy thing certainly, not least because there’s the regular potential to be shaken out of our comfort zones two hours after choosing something a little bit offbeat to watch. In the last week alone, I’ve gone from Harold And Maude and Silver Linings Playbook through to the haunting duo of The Hunt and Tyrannosaur. I sandwiched Muppets Take Manhattan and Tombstone in there too.

Each of those films needs consideration in different ways, and that’s why my hat goes off to some of the considerably talented newspaper film critics whose job it is, at heart, to have an opinion and provide guidance on pretty much everything that arrives in a multiplex on a Friday. Given that, in the UK, we’re getting over ten films a week being released in cinemas at the moment, that’s no easy task. The Peter Bradshaws, Robbie Collins, Mark Kermodes and Matthew Turners of this world have, I’d argue, a far harder job than it first looks. Sure, you can only tell the truth about your feelings towards certain material, but the nature of the job requires you to have something to say. And these people have to see pretty much everything. Not for nothing to do magazines and websites tend to have a mix of reviewers to cover different material. It’s because the people who can cover virtually everything well are a rare and cherishable breed, whether you agree with their opinions or not (it’s another reason we’ll miss the peerless Roger Ebert).

Which brings me back to Spring Breakers. I was conscious, from pretty much the opening scene of the film, that Spring Breakers wasn’t a film that seemed squarely aimed at me. I’d been engaged by Harmony Korine’s previous duo of Kids and Gummo, even if I found them both hard to warm to. Here though was a film I was keen to see (I wouldn’t have volunteered to cover it if I wasn’t), that spent a lot of time not working for me, before bursting into sporadic moments of outright brilliance. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the music of Britney Spears deployed in quite so inspired a way. And James Franco’s performance in the movie is brilliantly insane too. Every time his glittering character, all teeth, guns and madness, appears on the screen, Spring Breakers lifts enormously. 

That said, it’s ostensibly the tale of its four young female protagonists, and much of the early hype surrounds Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens shedding their Disneyfied image, thanks to substances, bikinis, pumpy of the rumpy nature and violence. If they were looking to play against expectation and type, that’s a box very much ticked.

What lets them down slightly is the distinctions between the four lead characters aren’t really pronounced enough, and tend to get swallowed up in the noise that Korine surrounds his film with. The loud soundtrack, the gun cocking breaks between scenes and the regular explosions of sound also overshadow much of the neon-splattered visual work.

Fortunately, I don’t really consider myself a film critic (help yourself to that phrase in the comments), but I’m still conscious that when I put a review of something up on a website, that if it even gets one person spending money or investing time as a result of it, I’ve got a responsibility to get it right. Which is why I’ve sorted of copped out here.

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Because in truth, this is one of those moments where the star rating system fails. To be fair, the star rating system at its best is a shaky affair, yet if I had to score Spring Breakers, I’d give it a three. However, I can’t think of a single ‘three star’ moment in it. Some five star bits? Yep. One star bits? Yep. Twos and fours? Quite probably. But for everything Korine throws at you, Spring Breakers never sits in the middle, is never ordinary, and regularly gets a reaction from you, either positive or negative. How can I put a three at the bottom of a review like that? 

It’s one of the problems with the world of film criticism. I can’t pretend to you that Spring Breakers is my kind of film, having sat and considered it for a good week. Neither, though, can I tell you to avoid it. Some – even outside of the token five star Nuts/Zoo/Loaded/delete as appropriate review it’ll probably get for all the topless scenes – will love it. Really love it. Others, inevitably, will have the opposite reaction. I’ve had both, in less than two hours.

So, in lieu of a slightly overweight man from the Midlands pretending otherwise, I’ve decided to come clean. It’s an unreviewable film for me, for a mixture of positive and negative reasons that go to the heart, in my mind, of some of the challenges facing film criticism. Because I don’t believe you can or should fake it when a piece of material isn’t aimed at you. I didn’t review the Twilight films here, because they don’t really appeal to me, and I didn’t want to pretend otherwise, or go into them with buckets of snark.

Instead, for me, all you can ever do is tell the truth. So here goes: Spring Breakers is the most brightly coloured mess of cinematic giddiness you’re likely to see this year. But I can’t work out for the hell of me whether you’re going to like it or not.

That really doesn’t help, does it?

Spring Breakers is out in UK cinemas now.

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