Thumbs Up for Roger Ebert

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Kevin Winter / Getty

Film Critic Roger Ebert

(2 of 5)


I don't know how Roger feels about this, but it makes me uncomfortable to think that, of all the millions of words he has written and spoken, the one most associated with him is "thumb." As in his and his TV partners' shorthand for a favorable review, "two thumbs up!" This tactic is handy for branding the show, and an effective marketing tool (it's the words all movie publicists want to banner at the top of their ads), but as critical discourse the slogan has its limits. More Manichaean than the star rating system he and other newspaper critics use to gauge a picture's quality (which, in the 2- or 3-star range does account for the great gray middle most movies occupy), it restricts the critics' appraisal of a film to "I liked it" and "I didn't like it." To express special enthusiasm, the critics can say, "Two thumbs up! Way up!" or, I guess, "That was thumb movie!" It's a pity; the shadings of Roger's thoughts on a movie deserve a wider vocabulary, which of course he provides in his print reviews.

Of the four or five films up for review on his weekly TV show, he typically would give a thumbs up to two or three of them, making me wonder who in the civilian community has time to see all these movies. But as one of the few critics with a practical familiarity with filmmaking, Roger knows that the machinery of film production is so cumbersome, the pressure for commercial success so great and the odds against making anything good near-astronomical, that the best intentions often get dashed on the rocks of compromise. So he's nearly as sympathetic to the attempt to make a good film as to the achievement in bringing it off. He errs, if erring it is, on the side of generosity.

When he doesn't like a movie, he will often go out of his way to mention some attractive element amid the carnage, giving what amounts to a review that says, "Yes, but! Big but!" And when he decides that a movie rates a pan — a "Bah, thumbug," if you will — he tends to approach the task not with the hot rage of a jilted suitor, or the curled lip of contempt that is the occupational habit of other critics (this one included), but with the fretful brow of a knowing, caring family doctor. He diagnoses the symptoms, then calmly and compassionately explains the nature of your ailment.

That is, unless he doesn't. Roger's latest book is called Your Movie Sucks — a collection of his thumbs-down reviews — and the anecdote that inspired the title is worth recounting. In an Oscar preview story two years ago, Los Angeles Time writer Patrick Goldstein made a joke about Rob Schneider's Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, "a film that was sadly overlooked at Oscar time because apparently nobody had the foresight to invent a category for Best Running Penis Joke Delivered by a Third-Rate Comic." Schneider, in a response that ran as a trade paper ad, wrote: "Well, Mr. Goldstein, I decided to do some research to find out what awards you have won. I went online and found that you have won nothing. Absolutely nothing. No journalistic awards of any kind. . . . Maybe you didn't win a Pulitzer Prize because they haven't invented a category for Best Third-Rate, Unfunny Pompous Reporter Who's Never Been Acknowledged by His Peers...." Ebert's take on this exchange: "Schneider is correct, and Patrick Goldstein has not yet won a Pulitzer Prize.... As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."

Even the butts of Roger's "buts" understand that there's nothing personal in his negative reviews — as indicated by a comment Roger made last year on his website: "A bouquet arrives... A beautiful bouquet of flowers was delivered to the house the other day. A handwritten note paid compliments to my work and wished me a speedy recovery. Who was it from? A friend? A colleague? An old classmate? The card was signed, 'Your Least Favorite Movie Star, Rob Schneider.'"

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