Mr. Farber has been killed by a scrunt: 17 films and TV shows that turn the tables on critics

Mr. Farber has been killed by a scrunt: 17 films and TV shows that turn the tables on critics

Inventory. The book.

1. Tom Friend, Masked And Anonymous (2003)
Bob Dylan made his feelings about journalists abundantly clear in the 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back, which showed him treating dimwitted reporters earnestly asking him about the importance of protest songs with the kindness of a windshield greeting a mosquito. Dylan co-wrote and stars in 2003’s extremely muddled yet humorously insightful Masked And Anonymous, which a contains a depiction of a debauched rock journalist nearly as vicious as anything in Don’t Look Back. Tom Friend, played by a very un-Dude Jeff Bridges, is dispatched to cover a benefit concert performed by aging rocker Jack Fate (played by Dylan), but instead of interviewing the artist, he lectures him on his many failures over the years. From Dylan’s perspective, people like Friend saw their ’60s dreams fade away like so much pot smoke, and instead of taking stock of their own lives, they blamed him, a mere singer who never asked to be “important.” No doubt feeling vengeful over the countless writers who have taken him to task over the years, Dylan [spoiler alert!] makes sure Friend is killed off in shockingly gruesome fashion… with a busted guitar, no less. 


2. Statler and Waldorf, The Muppet Show
While the Muppets were having fun with their forward-thinking variety show—not hurting anybody, mind you—a pair of crotchety old hecklers, Statler and Waldorf, sat in the balcony, raining down zingers on the performers, particularly the gormless Fozzie Bear. And while they weren’t explicitly identified as critics, it was pretty clear that the duo was inspired by the stuffy, smarter-than-thou critical community. To its great credit, The Muppet Show allowed its chief fault-finders to be hilariously funny and even biting: “What’s wrong with you?” “It’s either this show or indigestion. I hope it’s indigestion—it’ll get better in a little while.” And let’s face it: Fozzie was a terrible stand-up. If only we could convince Statler and Waldorf to critique Jay Leno.


3. General Kael, Willow (1988)
Over her two-decade-plus run at The New Yorker, no critic was more influential or more polarizing than Pauline Kael, who included George Lucas among the sacred cows she led to the slaughter. With his misbegotten fantasy opus Willow, Lucas and director Ron Howard tried to take revenge through a character named “General Kael,” leader of an army dispatched by the evil Queen Bavmorda to destroy an infant prophesied to kill her. By Kael’s own description in her unkind review of Willow, this “hommage d’moi” is a “Darth Vader-like giant in a death’s head mask.” She goes on to speculate that Lucas’ costly divorce might account for the film’s dim depiction of women in power, and writes that the climax leaves viewers “too embarrassed for the filmmakers to feel any suspense.” As a critic-bashing bonus, Lucas also introduces “Eborsisk,” a gnarly, two-headed, fire-breathing dragon that terrorizes a village. 



4. The Erotic Connoisseur, The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
For this film about a high-priced call girl operating in today’s shrinking economy, Steven Soderbergh aimed for maximum verisimilitude. That extended to the casting of porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role and former Premiere editor Glenn Kenny as a powerful Internet source for escort reviews, The Erotic Connoisseur. As played by Kenny with what might be called “oily charm,” if there’s any charm in it, the critic acts as a lecherous, unscrupulous cretin who expects a free sample in return for a good review. (He also dwells in a warehouse with Texas Chain Saw Massacre-like metal doors, and he clearly hasn’t showered for days, which makes the prospect extra-icky.) After Grey slinks away from the casting couch, Kenny logs a review so choked with gratuitous cruelty that it threatens her livelihood. Critics: vindictive and compromised. 


5. Homer Simpson, The Simpsons: “Guess Who’s Coming To Criticize Dinner?” (1999)
When Homer Simpson becomes the new food critic for the Springfield Shopper, two obvious problems come to mind: 1. He’s about as literate as an underachieving fourth-grader. 2. He likes everything he eats, and hands out raves to everything but a slice of pizza he found under the couch. (“It lost points because it had a Hot Wheel on it.”) He solves the first problem by having Lisa translate his inarticulate ramblings into caressing prose, but the second proves to be a stickier issue, partly because Springfieldians are getting fat off his recommendations, and partly because his unrelenting positivity is making the other critics look bad. Homer being Homer, he takes a sharp turn in the other direction, filing bon-mot-filled nasty reviews of local restaurants and even turning up his nose at Marge’s pork chops, which he gives his lowest rating, “seven thumbs up.” By the end, Homer isn’t comfortable with the arbitrary viciousness that comes with the trade. 



6. Mayor Ebert and Gene, Godzilla (1998)
In response to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s unkind reviews of their earlier films Stargate and Independence Day, producer Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich issued what Siskel called a “petty” response in their 1998 debacle Godzilla. In the film, the sweets-noshing Mayor Ebert is campaigning for re-election under the slogan “Thumbs Up For New York!” Like any sleazy politician, he’s all-too-happy to seize upon mass disaster (like, say, a monster rampaging through the city) for electoral gain. (His campaign adviser, Gene, doesn’t approve.) Like just about every other critic in the country, the real Siskel and Ebert gave a thumbs-down to Godzilla on the show and in print. In his review, Ebert professed that he didn’t feel zinged: “They let us off lightly. I fully expected to be squished like a bug by Godzilla.” 



7. Ellsworth M. Toohey, The Fountainhead (1949)
Ayn Rand didn’t so much create characters as invent mouthpieces for ideological positions, which is why no one in her books behaves even remotely like a real human. Witness Ellsworth M. Toohey, the architectural critic of the Banner newspaper in The Fountainhead, the 1949 movie version of her novel, with a screenplay by Rand herself. Toohey is meant to be not only an example of the kind of commie collectivism that Rand despises; he’s also a stand-in for the critics who consistently savaged her books. He’s the least believable character imaginable, openly speaking of his contempt for the masses and his intention to destroy the excellence of true achievers like Howard Roark (played by Gary Cooper) for the sake of his collectivist philosophy. Yet audiences are also asked to believe that he—an architecture critic!—is the most popular, beloved columnist in New York.  On top of it all, Robert Douglas plays Toohey with a not-so-subtle implication of homosexuality. Both as a representation of Rand’s socialist bogeymen and an embodiment of her critics, he’s a perfectly ludicrous cartoon.


8. Rex Reed, Lost In America (1985)
Albert Brooks opens Lost In America with a stealthy three-minute tracking shot through a moonlit house—turn down the volume, and you could almost mistake it for ominous. On the soundtrack, however, serving as mocking counterpoint, is a radio broadcast in which Larry King gamely attempts to plumb “the modus operandi of Rex Reed,” who was at that time a film critic for the New York Post. (He’s since moved to the New York Observer.) This brief interview snippet has no bearing whatsoever on the film’s narrative; rather, it feels like a pre-emptive strike against those critics who insist that Brooks’ curdled portraits of runaway narcissism simply aren’t funny, with Brooks passive-aggressively wielding a representative critic’s own words against him. It works, too: When Reed insists that he prefers to see even a raucous comedy all by himself in a sterile screening room at 10 a.m. (“If it’s really funny, I’ll laugh… I don’t respond very well to mass hysteria anyway”), he succeeds in making the entire profession seem joyless and anti-human, even more hopelessly lost than the film’s protagonists. (Reed does have some nice words for one movie, however: The Fountainhead.)



9. At The Movies with alien critics, They Live (1988)
Aliens walk among us in John Carpenter’s action-comedy They Live—ugly, grotesque aliens with faces like metallic skulls, disguised as ordinary humans via a nefarious broadcast signal. They seek to make us their unwitting slaves, and they’ve worked their way into positions of authority: as cops, as politicians, as business tycoons… and even as the stars of a certain popular movie-review program. In the film’s final seconds, two aliens who look suspiciously like Siskel and Ebert are seen on a bar’s TV set, with the Siskelien complaining that movies today feature too much explicit violence, and insisting that “filmmakers like George Romero and John Carpenter have to show some restraint.” Of course, by way of such restraint, Carpenter choreographed a bare-knuckle Roddy Piper/Keith David brawl that was so hilariously, bloodily protracted that an episode of South Park later replicated it blow for blow.

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10. Leonard Maltin, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Leonard Maltin wasn’t a fan of the original Gremlins; giving it two out of four stars, he criticized it for its over-the-top violence and mean-spirited gags. When it came time for Joe Dante to direct the sequel, instead of resorting to character assassination or ham-fisted mockery to respond to the review, he went straight to the source, and gave Maltin a cameo in the film. Maltin plays a critic for The Movie Police, repeating some of his problems with the first movie before the gremlins show up to register their displeasure by eating him alive. It’s a funny bit that manages to speak well of both the critic and the director; the former for being in on the joke, and the latter for knowing that only small imaginary monsters take anything Maltin says seriously.


11. Harry Farber, Lady In The Water (2006)
When Lady In The Water hit theaters, M. Night Shyamalan had something to prove. Though his previous film, The Village, did well at the box office, many reviewers panned its flat expository dialogue and ineffective third-act twist. So for Lady, a film with more expository dialogue than three Star Wars prequels combined, Shyamalan decided to teach his detractors a lesson. Not only did he cast Bob Balaban as Mr. Farber (tarnishing the late, influential film writer and scholar Manny Farber), a humorless, embittered newspaper critic who spends his time delivering condescending dissections of fiction and cliché (“There’s no originality left in the world,” he tells hero Paul Giamatti), Shyamalan even has Balaban’s commentary lead the main characters astray; his wrongheaded interpretation of symbolism nearly gets Bryce Dallas Howard killed by a murderous scrunt. (Don’t ask.) Balaban is slaughtered soon after, right in the middle of explaining how characters like him never get killed in this kind of movie. The moral being, critics get everything wrong. Too bad no one was listening; Lady bombed, and earned Shyamalan the worst notices of his career to date.



12. Sheridan Whiteside, The Man Who Came To Dinner (1942)
Playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart modeled the hero of their play The Man Who Came To Dinner after Alexander Woollcott, a renowned early-20th-century wit known for his boisterous personality and sharp opinions. On stage and in the 1942 film version, Kaufman and Hart’s “Sheridan Whiteside” was played by Monty Woolley, who gave the cantankerous character an evil grin and mischievous gleam. Though the audience is meant to enjoy Whiteside’s company (to a point), he’s still depicted as snobby, difficult, and out of touch with mainstream American values. When he slips and falls in a small town where he’s been scheduled to lecture, he takes over the lives of a middle-class household, cruelly manipulating his caretakers for his own amusement and comfort. He’s an unrepentant griper—half Rex Reed, half Jeffrey Wells.


13. John Bowman, Taxi: “Bobby And The Critic”
When the Sunshine Cab Company’s resident struggling actor Bobby Wheeler (played by Jeff Conaway) gets his dander up over the savage reviews of theater critic John Bowman (John Harkins), he writes an angry letter to the newspaper, which he promptly throws away. When Bobby’s boss Louie (Danny DeVito) digs the letter out of the trash and mails it in, Bobby becomes a folk hero to the New York theater community, and draws the attention of the critic himself, who comes to see Bobby’s latest performance. Bowman writes a rave review, shows it to Bobby, then tears it up in front of him, claiming that since a rave would make Bobby a star and a pan would make him a martyr, the only way to get even is to ignore Bobby altogether. Critics: They can dish it out, but they can’t take it.


14. Actual New York theater critics, ShowBusiness: The Road To Broadway
Of course who needs fictional portrayals of nasty critics when real-life critics do a fine job of making asses of themselves? In Dori Berinstein’s documentary ShowBusiness: The Road To Broadway, a group of New York critics gathers to dissect the upcoming season, and their know-it-all attitudes and casually savage remarks raise doubts about whether any of them actually enjoys the theater at all. Worst of the worst? The New York Post’s Michael Riedel, who seems more concerned about the backstage gossip and potential business for shows than their actual quality. “Who’s the audience for this?” he asks of future hit Avenue Q, before predicting it’ll close almost instantly. Later, frequent Riedel-target Boy George grumbles, “What is the purpose of Michael Riedel?” It’s a question ShowBusiness never even tries to answer—perhaps because even Berinstein isn’t sure.


15. Theater critic, I’ll Do Anything (the musical version) (1994)
In James L. Brooks’ I’ll Do Anything, pretty much every character is defined by a near-pathological need for validation and approval. The never-released musical version of the film establishes this theme immediately, as the cast for a new play sings and dances exuberantly about their opening-night exhilaration.  Their joy turns to dread, however, when a tweedy critic shows up on television and pans the show, singling out only Nick Nolte’s shaggy young thespian for praise. Oh, critics, always raining on parades. 


16. Local movie critic Marty Walker, The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
The greatest strength of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects is its continually shifting allegiances. Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, and Sheri Moon Zombie play sociopathic killers—loathsome, despicable monsters who make Charles Manson and his clan look like dilettantes. William Forsythe is the sheriff on a righteous quest to hunt them down and avenge his brother’s murder. Only the killers are as human as they are monstrous, and Forsythe’s need for vengeance makes him uncomfortably close to what he’s hunting. It’s an old theme, but Zombie does a good job with it. That’s why Robert Trebor’s cameo, as a film critic Forsythe calls in to help, rings false. Trebor’s hyper babbling about the Marx brothers and Elvis is unfunny and painfully literal, a tone-deaf approximation of an actual reviewer’s enthusiasm. Zombie might be satirizing the commentators who pointed out that his House Of 1000 Corpses was a soulless pastiche, but as rebuttals go, this is weak stuff.



17. Anton Ego, Ratatouille (2007)
Many thin-skinned movie critics read the character of Anton Ego, the food critic in Pixar’s masterful Ratatouille, as a preemptive strike against their assessment of the film. Yet the truth is a bit more complicated. Yes, Ego is an elitist prick who takes pride in his power to take Paris’ chef population down several pegs. Yes, he's a snooty caricature with his nose in the air and an evil grin that accompanies his devastating articles. But he’s also deeply in touch with the art he critiques. Although he’s guilty of prejudging food based on the pedigree of the cook and the recipe, he's honest enough to take a humbler stance when a perfectly presented ratatouille—a peasant dish of deceptive simplicity—sends him rushing in memory back to his mother’s kitchen. The ensuing review shows the critic’s art at its best, not its worst: being able to appreciate greatness, no matter where it’s found or who creates it.