Roger Ebert and The Joy of the Bad Review

Roger Ebert

When I am winding down at night I will, as so many other do, flip through an endless array of channels hoping to find a good movie. HBO, Cinemax, and other basic cable channels will have an array of films playing at any one time, and almost without fail the films will have one overriding commonality: they stink.

The same situation occurs when I walk down the aisles at Blockbuster (don’t make fun). I look over the massive amounts of films that have been produced and wonder how, in good or bad conscience, some producer or director said, “Yes, this film involving Ashton Kutcher sounds like a winner. Full Speed ahead.”

Dude Where's My Car?

Discerning film fans and full fledged cinephiles are able to locate, enjoy, and discuss cinema of a higher caliber.  Still, there is an awful amount of waste through which we must tread. I suppose that those among us who do not appreciate Adam Sandler films or the endless procession of dreadful horror flicks can attempt to hold their collective noses, but the stench is pretty strong. So what can be done? Ignore, educate, proselytize?

Instead, let us put all that waste to good use. Like a compost pile, the stinking refuse of cinema can be strategically place to fertilize something good: the bad review. 

I enjoy reading movie reviews, and I have a list of usual suspects whom I read and respect: David Denby, A.O  Scott… I generally respect the depth of their film knowledge and their ability to describe in prose what the camera describes in moving images. Out of all them, though, only Roger Ebert can masterfully craft a bad review.  Sure, the others will produce well written bad movie reviews, but Ebert can singularly make one glad that Blade: Trinity was produced and shown in theaters. He can turn 90 to 120 minutes of film dreck into 500 words of fun.   

Blade: Trinity

While finding a film about which to write a bad review is a rather simple task, writing a good bad review is difficult. Anyone can say that Mel Gibson’s performance is bad and overwrought, but to say it in a way that brings joy rather than disappointment or anger over another lousy Gibson film is an art. Ebert has mastered this art.

It might initially be odd to think of Ebert, one of the co-founders of the “Two Thumbs Up” movie reviewing system, as one of the maestros of cinematic insults. Indeed, he does have a fairly low bar when it comes to frowning upon a film.  I remember when Ebert once appeared on the Letterman show and mentioned that he was the only critic to give a glowing review to Cop and a Half. That is one hell of a low bar. Yet I think this is what makes his bad reviews so immensely pleasurable.  Ebert is predisposed to enjoy films, even films such as Cop and a Half. If a film falls below even that shallow measure, then full fledged mocking is required.

Cop and a Half

Take this sample from … The Bucket List (2007):

“I urgently advise hospitals: Do not make the DVD available to your patients; there may be an outbreak of bedpans thrown at TV screens.”

Or this one from … Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009):

“If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.”

And finally … North (1994):

“I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”

These films are awful, and Ebert helps us realize that. Moreover, Ebert actually give purpose to such awful films. Anytime I see trailers for what will more than likely be a dog or I come across something loathsome in the aisle of Blockbuster, I can smile to myself and know that Ebert would probably have something brilliant to say.  For that one moment, that singular recognition that the film provides wonderful fodder for a great reviewer, I am thankful that the film exists. 

For writing about the films that you and I dislike, I thank you Mr. Ebert.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
This entry was posted in Essays, Film, Film Criticism, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Roger Ebert and The Joy of the Bad Review

  1. stevenmillan says:

    For a while during the 80s and 90s,courtesy of Michael Medved’s THE GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS book aspiring scribes used to frequent themselves in specializing in writing many bad film reviews that slam terrible films in the ploy of it being easier for them to be able to write a film review(as well as easily hide their lack of decent writing skills),although today via the Internet(which enables everyone in being given the power to review and analyze everyone in life) everyone that aspires to be a film critic now has to write good reviews for good films to show the full structure and constructiveness of their writing skills and talents in being taken seriously as both a good film critic and a good and skillful writer.

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