I was all prepared to write about mythical creatures today as a tie-in with How to Train Your Dragon, but over on Twitter, it appeared that filmmaker Kevin Smith was fighting dragons of his own: demon film critics who did not support his latest film, Cop Out. I'd have written off Smith's Tuesday night tweets as him having a bad day, like we all do occasionally, and using social media to spread it around. But a number of writers paid more attention to the details than I would have, and were considerably annoyed by Smith's allegations: that we write scathing reviews to get attention, and that we are biased because we often see films for free at press screenings. Furthermore, on the same day everyone was a-twitter (sorry) about Smith, the long-running TV show At the Movieswas canceled. A sad day for film criticism, indeed.
All this news reminded me that some of my favorite characters in film are critics. They often get the wittiest and nastiest dialogue, and most of them are pompously elitist. You'd think that we were all members of a vast internet Algonquin Round Table. Terrible things often happen to them as a result, but since we're supposed to hate critics, that's all right. Critics like this are as rare in real life as the unicorns and dragons I originally considered writing about, but they are lots of fun to watch onscreen. Here are seven of my favorites. (Before you all ask me where Jay Sherman is, let me point out that these are all characters in movies, and no one has adapted The Critic for the big screen ... yet.)
Anton Ego, Ratatouille
Since I have an Anton Ego doll on my desk, glaring at me whenever I look his way, this would be the obvious choice. Ego is a restaurant critic, but I suspect director Brad Bird knew film critics would find it easy to draw a parallel. Ego, voiced by Peter O'Toole, has reached the point where he won't even swallow food he doesn't like, and he appears to derive no joy at all from his job or any part of his life. And yet, when he does encounter food that he actually enjoys ... well, let me just say this: Sometimes after a long January and February spent watching movies that Hollywood dumped into theaters because they weren't good enough to release at any other time of year, by the time I get to SXSW in March, I understand Anton Ego perfectly.
Speed and Tyrone, "Sneaking In the Movies," Hollywood Shuffle
All that stuff I said about critics being witty and elitist? That doesn't apply in this spoof of At the Movies, part of Robert Townsend's very funny film Hollywood Shuffle. Speed (Townsend) and Tyrone (Jimmy Woodard) have to keep their voices down in the movie theater where they're discussing movies because they don't usually pay admission to see films. And they don't use thumbs up and thumbs down ... when they don't like something, it gets the finger. Judge for yourself in the following clip.
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Lester Bangs, Almost Famous
Lester Bangs may be more of a journalist than a rock critic -- it's hard to say. He's really functioning primarily as a mentor in Almost Famous, helping out teenage William Miller (Patrick Fugit), who wants nothing more than to write about music for Rolling Stone. Still, there's something enviable about his character. Possibly this has a lot to do with the character's being portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who can be convincingly laid-back, cool, smart, mentor-ish ... and likable all at the same time. Bangs advises his protege to be "honest and unmerciful" when writing, which sounds to me like a good critic's advice.
Addison DeWitt, All About Eve
I've often wished that I could utter some of the witticisms that theatre critic Addison DeWitt says in All About Eve ... and instantly, please, at just the perfect time. Unfortunately, my brain just doesn't work that way, and when I do think of things like that, they always come across as being too hurtful. I don't have his thick skin. George Sanders made a career of playing these types of characters, but DeWitt, who uses his column and his eavesdropping skills to get what he wants, is the very best. Along the same lines, I also like Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner (Nathan Lane was wonderful too as the same character in a 2000 TV production), and Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker in Laura.
Dorothy Parker, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle
And then there's the real-life woman who actually spontaneously said the kinds of things that clever screenwriters penned for Addison DeWitt. Although I do love Dorothy Parker's short stories, somehow I have always thought of her as a critic first. Possibly this is because the first things I read of hers were her theater reviews, especially loving the time she substituted for Robert Benchley in 1931; I spent my college film-critic career hoping to equal her review of A.A. Milne's play Give Me Yesterday. Thank goodness I'm over that now. I do believe this film is Jennifer Jason Leigh's finest hour as she brings Mrs. Parker to life, and in fact all the writer and critic characters are superbly portrayed (except Charles MacArthur ... Matthew Broderick was far too recognizable).
Noah Sapperstein, Hamlet 2
Hamlet 2 was what critics might politely call a "wildly uneven" film, containing sidesplitting scenes side-by-side with gags that lay in a sad puddle and died. I did love the barely-teenage drama critic, though, who was far more of a knowing professional than Steve Coogan's high-school drama teacher. It is Noah's advice that helps make the production of Hamlet 2 the thing of -- um, not beauty, more like insanity -- that it is. Apparently this is Shea Pepe's only movie role, which is too bad ... I hope he didn't pursue a career in film criticism.
Harry Farber, Lady in the Water
Harry Farber is my least favorite character on this list, and but I feel I can't not include such a spitefully written stereotype of a film critic, although he is well played by Bob Balaban. It's as though this character and his ultimate fate provided therapy for Lady in the Water writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, whose previous films, The Village and Signs, did not receive favorable critical reception. Farber is an unpleasant pompous ass -- he doesn't even get wittiness to temper his universal pessimism -- and he ends up causing serious problems for the film's characters. I've never met a critic who spoke in movie-isms and Hollywood stereotypes as much as Farber does.