The supposed capper to a richly rewarding trilogy, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight already has plenty of critics buzzing, standing out as an early favorite for year-end top 10 lists. So it’s more than a little unsavory that of all the beguiled reviewers to turn to for poster quotes (and there are plenty), Sony Pictures Classics tapped the inescapable Peter Travers, a guy perpetually in line with the just-north-of-populist taste of awards bodies. On the film’s just-released poster, Travers’s praise reads as follows: “Before Midnight is one of the year’s best movies. Full to the brim with humor, heartbreak, and ravishing romance. Richard Linklater directs with ardor and artistry. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy shine brilliantly. Heads up, Oscar. This one’s a keeper.” Now, anyone who knows anything about film publicity will quickly gather that the strategy here can be traced straight to that keyword: “Oscar.” Travers has long been known as an utterly shameless blurb whore, filling his reviews with Academy-courting nuggets, and that FYC turn of phrase surely landed him prime real estate here. But, really, Sony Pictures Classics should know better than to resort to such—in laughably alliterative, Travers-esque terms—baldfaced buffoonery. This is an exceedingly classy film with a handsome poster to boot. And since Linklater and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke netted an Original Screenplay nod for 2004’s Before Sunset, surely their next installment is already on the Academy’s radar. Couldn’t a more articulate endorsement have been chosen to grace the ad for this ultra-articulate movie?
Technically, it’s not that anything in Travers’s blurb is untrue (Before Midnight is an all-around triumph, and more films like it should indeed earn Oscar’s attention). It’s that it reads like the insincere, thesaurus-aided platitudes of an amateur, and it would fool you as being such if not for those “signature” Travers kudos. Take a moment to Google “ravishing romance peter travers” and see what you find. By my count, the Rolling Stone scribe has used “ravishing romance” to hail at least eight movies, including Sleepy Hollow, Atonement, Midnight in Paris, Les Misérables, Bright Star, and WALL-E (the latter two, specifically, being lauded for their identical abilities to “sweep you up on waves of ravishing romance”). The alliterative staples of Travers’s vocabulary definitely don’t end there. There’s also “hilarious and heartfelt” and “unmissable and unforgettable,” to name two. It’s at once very irritating, deeply insulting, and terribly fascinating that Travers makes the conscious choice to regularly recycle the same generic gobbledygook. One wonders if he’s hoping to trademark these phrases, or if perhaps he anticipated our SEO-saturated world, making himself and his words, as I noted, excessively searchable. The thing is, bland reiteration isn’t the same as employing a “thumbs-up” or star system, and though the folks behind the movies don’t seem to mind, Travers’s practice is a slap not only to other critics, who thoughtfully labor over how best to describe something, but the films themselves, each of which deserves consideration Travers can’t be bothered to give.
In truth, it feels a bit sour to rag on another film writer, especially during a week with an announcement that one of our own, ComingSoon.net’s Ed Douglas, is battling illness with no insurance. If anything, Douglas’s plight, and the outpouring of support evidenced by a growing online fundraiser, points to the importance of community within a discipline. The point here, though, isn’t just to fire jabs at Travers, but to highlight the impact a pullquote can have on the art of movie marketing. The Before Midnight poster isn’t a stunner. Like the posters for this saga’s first and second chapters, it’s decidedly (and appropriately) simple, highlighting the central couple and their current exotic locale. With a great amount of (perhaps telling) blank space, the newest one-sheet is very amenable to praise, and would have looked good with anyone’s congrats scrawled across it. But its integrity slumps considerably once one gets through Travers’s words, words that would most definitely repulse speak-from-the-heart souls like Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy). For those enmeshed in the critical universe, or just plain savvy about film, pullquotes can have a powerful effect, be it through compositional usage or simply what’s written (for me, one that always comes to mind is Stephen Holden’s “Exhilarating.” floating in midair on the poster for Man on Wire). But what about those who aren’t quite so invested in this stuff? Do they notice how a blurb can make or break an ad? Do they care? Surely anyone who ever had a video store membership, and made good use of it, is aware of Travers Speak. Do they find it disingenuous? Déjà-vu-inducing? Are they as turned off, yet oddly captivated, by it as I am? And will it sway them from trusting the validity of a film like Before Midnight? Which is anything but a commonplace depository for repurposed bunk? Let’s hope not. That would be, ya know, Unfortunate and Unforgivable.