05/17/2010 09:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When a movie is 'not terrible'

Critics are supposed to go into each movie with an open mind. No matter what we think of a particular director or actor or producer - and we all have our favorites and our most-hated in each category - we are expected to bring a blank slate to each new film.

And it's tough. Frankly, it's impossible.

Even when you have no particular opinion about the artists involved - or know nothing about them - the media culture in which we live makes it difficult not to be exposed to TV commercials, on-line trailers, magazine and newspaper features and the like, which create images and expectations of their own.

Even when I do my best to filter all of that out, it is impossible to do so. And so, though I weigh each movie on its own merits, I can't help but have certain expectations going in.

Which brings me to a category of movie I think of as the not-terrible movie. Which can be the same thing as the better-than-expected movie.

That, of course, flies in the face of everything I just said. If a movie is better than expected, it means that my expectations were low to start with. If I say a movie is not terrible, it implies that I thought it would be.

It's a little like calling something a pleasant surprise. Why a surprise? Because you assumed you wouldn't like it. Or that it would disappoint. That it would be terrible.

But, in this case, it's not terrible. It's not great - but it's not terrible.

A recent example? Let's start with The Proposal, the 2009 film that teamed Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds as the boss who needs her assistant to marry her so she won't be deported.

The commercials and trailers - which were impossible to avoid - seemed to give away all of the jokes in the film. That's one reason I try to avoid trailers: because the studios seem to believe that somehow audiences won't be disappointed to discover that, in fact, they've already laughed at a movie's funniest moments in the commercial. Apparently they're right.

Anyway, The Proposal turned out to be not-terrible. Yes, it was a lightweight, middle-of-the-road piece of Hollywood fluff - but it had more laughs than just those in the trailers. And it had the delightful Betty White as its secret weapon.

As a critic, I couldn't call it good movie-making; it was simply mediocre. But as a movie-goer, I had to admit that it made me laugh a number of times, more often than I expected.