People always tell me what a great job I have when they learn that I’m a movie critic, and I reply that, yes, it is a fun job, but unlike ordinary moviegoers, I can never walk out of a film that’s sucking. But that’s what Roger Ebert did, in effect, when he reviewed the indie film Tru Loved last week after watching just eight minutes of it. At least he acknowledged in the review that he was judging the film based on only the first eight minutes, but not until the end of the review. Later, he explained his decision on his blog (the piece read better that way, he said — in other words, he didn’t feel like he had to watch the whole movie to judge it, but you and I have to read his whole review to find that out). Now, however, he has reconsidered, apologized on his blog, and watched the movie in full and reviewed it (you can read both the original review and the new review here).
I think what Ebert did the first time is unprofessional, and he now seems to acknowledge that his first review did both the readers and the filmmakers adisservice. For one thing, his review of the partial movie contained an error about one of theactors that he would not have made had he seen the whole filminitially. Also, he notes that it’s a miracle when any movie comes together and makes it into the marketplace, and the least he can do is give it the respect of seeing it all the way through before rendering judgment. Ebert suggests now that the movie deserves extra consideration even beyond that because it’s an independent film, and he’s always been an indie champion. Indeed he has, but if he gives extra weight to subpar movies, he does no favors either for the indie film movement or for moviegoers trying to decide which films to spend money on. His job isn’t to advocate for indie movies (or against big-budget studio movies) but to advocate for good work.
Still, Ebert didn’t really change his opinion of the film after seeing the whole movie. One could argue that his opinion was tainted by the whole controversy that had arisen around the incident, though I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, since his review of the full film explains in rational and dispassionate terms why the movie doesn’t work (it’s basically agitprop meant to combat teen homophobia, he says, well-intentioned but full of cardboard characters and dramatically inert), while allowing that there are some audiences who might appreciate it anyway (teens starved for positive, gay-friendly role models). Maybe the makers of Tru Loved should have considered themselves lucky the first time, when the uproar over Ebert’s stunt gave their movie extra publicity, before he tore the movie apart scene by scene.
One point Ebert doesn’t address in his apology is that he’s, well, Roger Ebert. No other movie critic in America could have pulled off such a stunt without getting fired. I fear that, even though he corrected his mistake, he’s still set a bad example. At a time when film critics all over America are losing their jobs, it can’t be good for readers, editors, or filmmakers to think that what he did passes for professional, acceptable behavior among film critics and the outlets that publish their work, even for a moment.