“Critics have a duty to be clear with readers,” Marshall Fine has written in a 4.12 essay. “Not to warn them, per se, because that implies something about relative merit. But to be clear or honest [when the case applies]: This is a movie in which nothing much happens. Or this is a movie in which what does happen doesn’t make a lot of sense. Or is deliberately off-putting or upsetting.”

I am one of the few critic-columnists who actually says stuff like this from time to time. But I disagree with Fine siding with the virtues of audience-friendly films, particularly when he uses Brian Helgeland‘s 42 as a sterling example.

“You know what an audience-friendly film is,” Fine writes. “It tells a story that engages you about characters you can like and root for. {And] yet movies that seek to tell a story that uplifts or inspires often get short shrift from critics. 42 is being slagged by some critics for being manipulative, [but it] happens to be a well-made and extremely involving story about an important moment in history.”

Wells response: 42 is okay if you like your movies to be tidy and primary-colored and unfettered to a fault, but it’s a very simplistic film in which every narrative or emotional point is served with the chops and stylings that I associate with 1950s Disney films. The actors conspicuously “act” every line, every emotional moment. It’s one slice of cake after another. Sugar, icing, familiar, sanctified. One exception: that scene in which Jackie Robinson is taunted by a Philadelphia Phillies manager with racial epithets. I’m not likely to forget this scene ever. It’s extremely ugly.

Back to Fine: “The fact that 42 works on the viewer emotionally, however, is often seen as a negative by critics who aren’t comfortable with movies that deal with feelings, rather than ideas or theories.”

There’s an audience, Fine allows, for nervy, brainy and complex films like To the Wonder, Upstream Color, Room 237, Holy Motors and The Master. But “all of those are not audience-friendly,” he states. “Most of them were barely watchable. But if you read the reviews, you would find little that’s descriptive of what the movie actually looks or feels like while you’re watching it. Which, for a lot of people, was a negative experience in the case of those particular titles.

“How many people saw them because of positive reviews that were misleading? How many might have thought twice if the review mentioned that, oh, well, this film is all but incomprehensible, even if you’ve read a director’s statement on what it means? Or, well, this movie has very little dialogue and takes a 20-minute break for a flashback to the beginning of time? Or this movie is about an inarticulate movie star caught in moments by himself during a movie junket?”

Wells response: I also think that critics should just say what it’s like to watch certain films. If a film is great or legendary or well worth seeing they need to say that, of course, but they also have to admit how it plays in Average-Joe terms and how it feels to actually sit through it. I’m not saying “nobody does this except me,” but who does do this? New Yorker critic David Denby strives to convey this, I think. Andy Klein does this. I’m sure there are others. But I know that it’s a clear violation of the monk-dweeb code to speak candidly about how this or that monk-worshipped, Film Society of Lincoln Center-approved film actually plays for non-dweebs or your no-account brother-in-law or the guy who works at the neighborhood pizza parlor. Guys like Dennis Lim will never cop to this.

It also needs to be said that “audience-friendly” is a somewhat flattering term. The more accurate term is audience-pandering. Pandering to the banal default emotions that the less hip, more simple-minded and certainly less adventurous portions of the paying public like to take a bath in. Because these emotions are comforting, reassuring, and above all familiar. That is what 42 does, in spades.