Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen HunterPhoto: Getty Images
This weekend’s critical and box-office smash The Bourne Ultimatum was, as we’ve mentioned, beloved by most critics, garnering an 85 Metacritic score and rampant praise for Paul Greengrass’s directing in particular. The only critic who truly trashed the movie, in fact, was the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Hunter, who called it an “express train without destination” and predicted it would “tarnish the careers” of everyone involved. (Yes, we’re sure that rave reviews and $70 million will take the shine off Joan Allen’s body of work.) His Bourne review is a gimmicky curiosity — a florid attempt to make sense of a film that Hunter seemingly isn’t equipped with the critical capabilities to process.
But longtime readers of Hunter weren’t surprised to find the critic in over his head. When Hunter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2003, everyone we know who has ever lived in Washington — our friends, our co-workers, even our mother-in-law — was flabbergasted, because Stephen Hunter is not a good movie critic. In any given week, you can pluck his review out of the Post and be assured it will be absurdly overwritten, hemmed into his limited aesthetic purview, and quite frequently totally wrong.
Now, we could take any critic and pick him apart for opinions that seem wrongheaded in retrospect. In Hunter’s case, those crimes against common sense would include his dismissive pan of Far From Heaven, his slam of Sexy Beast, and his over-the-top rave for Austin Powers: Goldmember. But whatever, we pay our critics to have opinions; the real problem for Stephen Hunter is that even when we agree with him — as when he gave the mostly ignored Out of Sight an unqualified rave — we still can’t stand to read his reviews, because they’re written by a man who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room:
Out of Sight has just made it to the screen, with George Clooney as the good-bad guy and Jennifer Lopez as the bad-good girl. Note the punctuation in the qualifiers, please. That small jot between the words explains what’s so fascinating about [Elmore] Leonard. The key to nearly everyone’s character and motive is the hyphen that balances an equipoise of contradictions, the opposing values. Almost no one is pure, as in pure evil or pure good. It’s a universe of the ambivalent, the constantly shifting, the occasionally impulsive; it’s the universe of uncertainty, where each character has a touch of darkness and light to him or her, a constant war between nurture and aggression, and behind their cunning eyes, we can watch these dynamic forces battle it out bitterly.
Indeed, Perfesser, the characters in Out of Sight are complex. Moving on?
Hunter does have his critical blind spots, which are aggravating as hell. He’s a sucker for big-budget Hollywood awards bait, for example, giving masterpiece-level reviews to The Hours, Chicago, and Cold Mountain. He is totally tone-deaf to mainstream comedy; his Goldmember rave, for example, looks kind of bad next to his short-sighted prediction that Elf would be “the last Will Ferrell star vehicle.”
But these are problems many critics share. What most critics don’t share is Hunter’s overwhelming pedantry, and his willingness to cloak ignorance or misunderstanding in what he believes to be flashy, outstanding writing. In between movie reviews, Hunter writes best-selling thrillers — this year’s Mark Wahlberg movie Shooter was based on his novel — and it’s as if all the bloated overwriting his editors won’t let him put in his books makes its way into his reviews.
And he won the Pulitzer! One of only three film critics to do so! (Roger Ebert and Joe Morgenstern are the others.) That’s what’s most galling about Hunter’s continued employment, and that’s why we’ll never stop calling him Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Hunter. As with all great national tragedies, if we do not remember, we risk repeating our shame.
Earlier: If I Had a Hammer, I’d Hammer Stephen Hunter