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Is the Onion’s Film Criticism Better Than Its News Satire?

The Onion has gotten much attention over the past few months as its political op-eds have crept toward a bolder, buzzier kind of advocacy on subjects from Syria to sexism. In a lengthy reported piece in Slate last month, Farhad Manjoo argued that the site has gotten less funny as it has lost some of its slyness and become, under pressure from the viral age, more Jon-Stewart-esque: “ultra-clever but also a little scoldy, oversmart, and lacking much nuance.” But if that’s the case, The Onion’s spirit of crafty subversion is alive and well in a quieter corner of the site—its film criticism.

The weekly video feature “Film Standard” stars fake movie critic Peter K. Rosenthal, a quiet professorial type with a dignified tuft of gray hair and a wardrobe full of sweater vests. Each segment is off-kilter in a slightly different way. Rosenthal comments on a film with glazed seriousness, his analysis at first so sober that it is almost unrecognizable as satire, but gradually coming unhinged. Sometimes the segments lampoon the pretensions of film criticism, its blinkeredness and its overenthusiasm for symbolism. Sometimes they spoof the self-importance and epic ambitions of movies themselves. And granted, sometimes they belabor their jokes a bit too long. But on the whole The Onion’s film criticism manages  to send up its subjects in ways that are subtle, surprising, and impressively weird.

Gravity  Review:

Rosenthal describes “Gravity” as “a space survival thriller so immersive and visually stunning it has driven everyone who has watched it violently mad, including myself.” He then proceeds to go slowly insane while continuing his critical assessment. “While 3D might be little more than a gimmick for some film-makers, Cuaron uses the extra dimension so flawlessly, it shut down the portions of my brain responsible for empathy, remorse, and basic reasoning,” he declares. In the next shot, he is shirtless. “As the film’s leads, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney do an amazing job, and I would like to eat both of them alive,” he says.

12 Years a Slave  Review:

Again, Rosenthal starts slow, calling the movie “a sprawling epic that chronicles an emotional story of hardship and survival.” But the segment soon becomes a ridiculous pastiche of tour de force performances by black actors. For instance: Rosenthal cites “a captivating performance” from “Denzel Washington, who appears as civil rights leader Malcolm X in his inspirational attempt to coach a racially divided high school football team in Alexandria, Virginia.” Also: “It is a sober film, but 12 Years a Slave is not without its moments of levity, provided mostly by Tyler Perry”—cut to an image of Perry in drag.

The Onion Looks Back at Jaws:

In this “cinema classic segment,” Rosenthal introduces Jaws as “a psychological thriller about a closeted gay man whose fear of coming out to his friends and family manifests itself in the form of a ravenous killer shark.” He adds: “Spielberg himself was well-known for chronicling his own struggles with his homosexuality in nearly all of his movies, whether it was the two gay velociraptors in Jurassic Park or the little girl wearing the red coat in Schindler’s List.”

Lee Daniels’ The Butler:

Rosenthal describes this film as “an historical drama inspired by the true story of an African American White House butler and a very important film that features very important people and covers very important themes.” As for Oprah, “throughout the film she screams, yells, and cries because everything happening around her is very significant and historic.” He explains further: “Race, family, Martin Luther King Jr., government, love, Richard Nixon, hopes, dreams, fathers and sons, the White House, and Dwight D. Eisenhower are all extremely important.” It’s a not a bad summary of the movie at all.