The brouhaha over Roger Ebert’s review of the Adam Sandler-Chris Rock starrer The Longest Yard has raised some interesting points about subjectivity in reviewing. The gist is that Ebert gave the film a "muted thumbs up" in an episode of Ebert & Roeper just before leaving for the Cannes Film Festival. On returning three weeks later he now had to get down to the business of writing the full-length review and justifying his earlier endorsement of the film - but in the interim he had seen so many vastly superior, vastly more ambitious films that the Longest Yard review turned into an exercise in ambivalence and self-examination.
Even as he stands by his original opinion, Ebert writes:
"I do not say that I was wrong about the film. I said what I sincerely believed at the time. I believed it as one might believe in a good cup of coffee; welcome while you are drinking it, even completely absorbing, but not much discussed three weeks later. Indeed after my immersion in the films of Cannes, 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."
Later, replying to a reader’s letter on the topic, he admits:
"I was trying to balance on the cutting edge between conceding that a movie ‘works’ and knowing that life is short and one should ideally be making a better choice."
Many of my movie-critic friends scoff at Ebert’s largely populist reviews, at his star-ratings which always seem to over-praise mediocre movies and especially at the simplistic "thumbs-up-thumbs-down" approach that has been a trademark of his TV career (first with Gene Siskel, now with Richard Roeper). But that’s doing the man an injustice. Ebert freely admits that he himself never sets much store by star ratings and the "thumbs" approach - that those are necessitated by commercial dictates. His actual reviews - if you bother to read them all the way through - are usually more complex and thoughtful, even when the star rating shouts out ****! In fact, he repeatedly cautions his readers not to go by the ratings (which are imposed by the newspaper he writes for) but by the text.
In fact, contrary to this misperception that Ebert deals in absolutes, one of the things I admire most about him is his insistence that reviews are subjective, shifting creatures: that there are no constants, that one’s opinion of a film will change depending on one’s age or even mood, and even that it’s pointless expecting one review to be consistent with another, especially when the reviewer has been in the business for 40 years.
The other thing of course is his slightly convoluted (but indispensable) guiding principle for reviewers: "Don’t judge a film by what it’s about but how it’s about whatever it’s about." Such openmindedness about genres is, in my opinion, one of the first requisites for any good reviewer, but it’s sadly lacking in many of the best writers among movie reviewers around the world. Anthony Lane for instance: now there’s a man whose every review I’d read devotedly, just because his writing is so entertaining (especially when he’s taking the hatchet to a film). But somehow I just can’t bring myself to think of him as a good film reviewer: one rarely gets the sense that he loves movies, it’s more like he’s in love with his own writing and obsessed with being clever. Ebert on the other hand has no such hang-ups. (Which is not to say that his writing is half-bad either!)
P.S. Here's a heartily recommended link: Ebert's essays on Great Movies.