Like every film freak I know, I have for some time harbored a deepening dislike of Richard Roeper, due to his appearance on the weekly film show with Roger Ebert. There are many irritations to the man, who manages to come off like an over-eager puppy dog, at the same time being too slick, too yuppy, too callow, too prissy, and *WAY* too smug, but I think the basic reason I hate him, and why that hate is so prevalant among so many of us, is that he’s gotten a job for which he is not qualified, and which he did not earn.
Almost all of the things mentioned in exception to Roeper are aspects of that simple, basic fact. When people speak of his evident lack of passion for film and his lack of knowledge of it, it all goes directly to that. He isn’t qualified for the job, and he didn’t earn it. Siskel and Ebert created a venue for film criticism that made them the most important movie critics in America. Whoever filled the second seat when it was vacant was going to be the second most important film critic in the country.
It might be instructive to contemplate a bit of history. Siskel and Ebert became successful for many reasons, but telegenic qualities weren’t among them. That the two looked as they did, one balding and the other overweight, actually added to their appeal; they were there in spite of their looks. In the over-prettified world of television, it was a refreshing change. When they left the PBS show “Sneak Previews” to go to syndication, PBS tried to keep the original show going. Unfortunately, they chose their two new reviewers with a first concern for appearance—and the show was an absolute dog. It went by the wayside while Siskel and Ebert flourished.
When Gene Siskel died, and the search began to find a replacement, the list quickly got whittled down to the pretty ones. There is an upside to that, in that it ruled out Harry Knowles, but it also meant the search wasn’t being driven by an urge to find that magic chemistry again, born of their love of film, that Siskel and Ebert had. In fairness to everyone involved, that’s a lot harder to find than mere looks. Whatever his other shortcomings, one thing you can say about Roeper as a film commentator, he is a snappy dresser.
Roeper was, apparently, personally chosen by Roger Ebert to fill the position. And that is where the problems with Roeper begin. It’s easy to imagine Roeper and Ebert being buddies at work--their personalities and attitudes come across as so similar that Roeper, at times, seems like a younger version of Roger. And one of the justifications Ebert has given for the choice was that he was “comfortable” with Roeper. But what made Ebert’s partnership with Siskel work was that they were so basically DIS-similar—Siskel was not a man Ebert was “comfortable” with.
That discomfort worked in their favor. Together, Siskel and Ebert presented a wider perspective of opinion about movies, a sum greater than the parts. But with Roeper and Ebert, if feels like you’re getting the view from just one segment of the audience. Even when the two disagree, there isn’t any real argument or fundamental clash. “Well, I liked it less than you did.” “I didn’t like it as much as you did.” “I have to agree with you on that.” “I see your point.” “You’re completely right about that, Roger.” Jesus, guys, go rent a room.
You do not see fervent disagreement between the two. The splits we get tend to be a marginal thumbs-up balanced by a marginal thumbs-down, even when dealing with the most polarizing films. For example, last year there was a major disagreement between critics about “Donnie Darko;” some critics were swept away by it, and others were convinced it was worthless. Ebert was marginally down, Roeper was marginally up. Another film that polarized critics was David Lynch’s “Mulholland Falls;” both gave it a thumbs up.
Where’s the heat and passion with which Ebert and Siskel disagreed about “Blue Velvet”? When has Roeper ever stood up to Ebert the way Joyce Kulhawik did when they disagreed over “Gladiator”?
The biggest major disagreement I’ve ever seen them have was when Roeper gave “Lord of the Ring: the Fellowship of the Ring,” a thumbs down. Ebert didn’t agree with Roeper, and he made the case for the movie, but he did mention, “Well, I can see where you’re coming from…”
Part of the problem with Roeper may be with Ebert. Maybe Ebert needs someone he’s uncomfortable with so he can let loose and react to his shallow opinions as we’d all like to, by asking if he’s completely lost his mind and getting in his face. Certainly, Roeper kept arguing his point with Ebert, talking over him, and repeating again and again his (single!) point, that he found the movie, “boring and overlong.”
This leads to another reason Ebert has given for choosing Roeper: Roger claimed to like it that Roeper wasn’t deferential when the two were discussing movies. And, indeed, Roeper will break in and interrupt Roger a lot. But the tone is wrong. When Siskel disagreed with Ebert, the disagreements stemmed from fundamental differences in outlook and opinion, and the two were always very forward not just at interrupting each other and getting their views out, but also at backing up what they said. It’s that last bit that Roeper hasn’t got.
And this leads to the damning quality of Roeper, the single thing that marks him as the wrong man for this job. It comes down to the difference between a critic and a reviewer. Roger Ebert is one of the best movie critics working. Roeper is a reviewer, and a second-rate reviewer, at that.
Critics tell why something is good or bad. Reviewers merely tell you what they thought of it at the time. The first is a considered opinion, based on a depth of knowledge and a cultivated taste, with a careful explanation to compel and persuade as to the justness of the opinion expressed. The second is the overbearing carping of the blowhard around the coffeepot on Monday morning.
A corollary to my definition of a reviewer is that the reaction you're getting might be just a local phenomena. Maybe he was suffering from gastric distress when he watched the film. Maybe he doesn't like movies that feature too much purple in the production design. If you don't know the why, the opinion doesn't tell you very much, does it?
And so it is with Richard Roeper; there’s never any why. He didn’t like “The House of Mirth,” because it’s a “hat movie,” and he doesn’t like “hat movies.” He preferred the remake of “Planet of the Apes” to the original version. He went thumbs down on “Croupier,” “Chicken Run,” ("I didn't like it that much") and “Lilo & Stitch,” ("...well, this adult anyway, was bored by it.") but went thumbs up on the asinine comedy, “The Kid.”
Boiled down, all of Roeper's reviews come down to just "I liked it," or "I didn't like it." This leads to a second corollary that real critics know and that Richard Roeper never learned--WHO CARES what you like? Even if I disagree with Roger Ebert, I can read his work and gain a sense of the film that might let me see if I'd be interested.
Whatever you think of the opinions I've quoted—-and I think they’re all pretty damned silly—-you could at least respect them if he’d give some reasons. But he doesn’t do that. I’m not sure he’s even aware that it might be possible to go deeper into these issues. Sometimes, when Ebert is discussing how a film works, you’ll see Roeper’s eyes glaze over, like the proverbial deer in the headlights.
I stop hating him momentarily when he does this, and feel sorry for him so stuck out there in the deep end, so obviously in over his head. Eventually he opens his mouth again, though, and the sympathy goes away.
Finally, there are two other qualities that critics exhibit, which come about because of that quest for why art works or why it doesn't. One is an ability to change an opinion of a work of art, and the other is the ability to notice things that others haven't in a work. Both of these are conspicuously absent from Roeper's reviews.
I'm actually in a logical problem here. It is impossible to prove a negative. 500 cases of something not occuring doesn't conclusively prove that it couldn't possibly occur, just that you haven't seen it after a lot of looking. All I can say is that I've never seen the man change his mind once his opinion his been stated, that I've never heard him give any reason for his opinions beyond his own gut reaction, and that he's never shared an insight about any film he's viewed that surprised me.
That last is the best indication that Richard Roeper is not a critic. Good critics bring something to you that you haven't seen yourself. As far as Roeper goes, I'm still waiting.
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originally posted: 01/28/03 18:18:44
last updated: 09/23/05 00:05:08