Or, how the exception proves the rule.
Now, I'd previously pointed out how being successful with a movie that critics loathe is a bad idea if you want to get good reviews in the future. Here's the exception to that: the critic's re-think.
The Notebook premiered in 2004 to middling reviews. While a few critics said they liked it despite the schmaltz, most dismissed it as a mediocre piece of craftsmanship. Tellingly, they dismissed the two romantic leads, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, in an offhand fashion. "They make a nice couple," said one reviewer, who couldn't seem to be bothered to mention any more about it. Most reviews spent their time focusing their time on how much they hated Nick Cassavetes' direction.
But then The Notebook hit, huge. It made $81 million over the waning months of the summer (it's budget was a mere $29 million, which is tiny for a studio picture), and it quickly reached cult status before it even reached DVD release.
According to the Free Film theory, this should have been a bad sign for both McAdams and Gosling. But fortunately for them, the success of the movie didn't harden the critics against them, but instead made them feel like they might have missed the boat.
When each of the actors made smart choices on their next films, the critics welcomed them in with open arms. McAdams saddled herself with the right sex comedy, Wedding Crashers, which went well out of its way to make sure that audiences noticed the caliber of actress they had in the lead. She followed with the unremarkable thriller Red Eye, but by that time, the critics had already welcomed her in. "She's got that indefinable something extra," cooed one.
"Most of the credit goes to her," announced another. Even Roger Ebert got into the act. "She brings more presence and credibility to her role than is really expected;" he says, swooning.
"She acts without betraying the slightest awareness that she’s inside a genre." He goes on to theorize that the reason for this may be because she's Canadian. So that's why we missed her!
Gosling's rise is even headier. If you watch the excellent trailer for the Next Great Indie Hope, Half Nelson, you may be a little surprised. "A tour de force by the brilliant Gosling, surely one of our greatest young actors?" "Ryan Gosling gives an astonishing performance," "Gosling is one of the most exciting actors of his generation?" Who said that? What? The New York Times? I'm sorry, but I'd completely missed what happened here. Isn't this just a mid-twenties B-list celeb with a penchant for doing indie flicks?
Gosling was the hidden star of the Notebook, but he didn't use that pull to push himself out of the world of intense indie dramas. For that, the critics love him. Adore him. Gosling would have to take a couple pretty big steps out of that world for those critics to leave him now. He played the hand dealt him perfectly - he didn't jump from the notebook to the next big blockbuster that came along. He instead went for the next big indie vehicle that fit his style. He'll never need a Free Film. His movies will always get good reviews (when was the last time you saw a Stand and Deliver-type movie get an 87% rating? Granted it is, quite literally, Stand and Deliver on crack). These guys are always going to be rooting for him.
And that, sports fans, is how you keep those pesky critics on your side.