Roger Ebert: Grade Inflater?
The answer to the following question, in my humble opinion, is “yes”:
Thumbstruck: Is Roger Ebert a Little Too Kind? (TimeOut Chicago)
There’s no doubt that Ebert still loves movies, which is admirable given that he’s reviewed more than 5,200 of them over the past 38 years. But maybe he loves them too much. Consider his recent double take on the lame Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard. Ebert gave the movie a “thumbs up” on TV, but then second-guessed himself after spending a week at the Cannes Film Festival. “I can hardly bring myself to return to The Longest Yard at all, since it represents such a limited idea of what a movie can be and what movies are for,” he wrote. Fair enough. But thenÃ¢€”and this is what bugs usÃ¢€”he still gave the movie three stars on the wishy-washy grounds that it “more or less achieves what most of the people attending it will expect.”
Granted, Ebert usually reserves four stars for genuinely outstanding movies, except when he lets special effects cloud his judgment, as in the case of The Cell (“One of the best films of the year”) or Dark City (“a triumph of art and imagination”). But he’s downright promiscuous with the three-star rating, awarding it to almost a third of the movies he reviews.
To be fair, Ebert has a reasonable, if almost existentialist, explanation for his grading system:
Movie Answer Man, May 25, 2005 (Chicago Sun-Times)
Star ratings are the bane of my existence, because I consider them to be relative and yet by their nature, they seem to be absolute.
Ebert’s problem is that he tries too hard to adapt his review to the movie. With a summer blockbuster, he gives the benefit of the doubt, recognizing that mindless entertainment rules the season. With a presumed Oscar contender, he elevates the standards. I think that critics should certainly bear in mind the aim of a movie and have, as it were, a sense of humor. But they should also remember that, with such an approach, they run the risk of being terribly sloppy. And, within a span of hundreds of movies a year, the inconsistencies will become abundantly clear — very quickly.
Except for Ebert, most of the critics on my reading list (A.O. Scott of the New York Times, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, and David Denby of the New Yorker, among others) don’t use ratings, and I tend to prefer it that way. I like going through an entire review without the distraction of, and the temptation to rely solely on, a grade. Sure, I visit Rotten Tomatoes, too. But I use it mainly as a tool to find fresh perspectives and always with the understanding that the numbers are flawed. In any event, it’s much more satisfying to take in a full deconstruction of a movie and understand all of the nuances.