We gave it a D+
He is one of the few bona fide stars of the Internet: an average moviegoing schmo who parlayed his penchant for gossip into one of the most feared — and revered — websites in showbiz. And as his part geek screed, part call-to-armrests memoir, Ain’t It Cool?: Hollywood’s Redheaded Stepchild Speaks Out, demonstrates, no one is more aware of the power of Harry Knowles than…Harry Knowles.
Depending on whose spin you believe, the 30-year-old Knowles — who launched his movie-gossip site Ain’t It Cool News in 1996 — is either an asset or an adversary to the film studios, which by now are familiar with his movie-mad MO. He posts early reviews of unfinished flicks, campaigns for his favorite projects to be greenlit, and hypes movies he feels have been given short shrift by both the industry and critics.
It was only a matter of time before Knowles decided to take his causes to a new forum — after all, he’s never been known for keeping his opinions to himself. But, as his first foray outside the safety of the Net, Ain’t It Cool? the book is nearly indistinguishable from Ain’t It Cool the site. And while it retains the author’s affection for — and knowledge of — cinema, it also transports his borderline-narcissistic personality and undisciplined writing to a much less forgiving medium.
Granted, the poor prose shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s ever read the exhausting rants that often pass for reviews on Knowles’ site. But considering that he had help writing the book (entertainment scribes Paul Cullum and Mark Ebner serve as cowriters) and presumably underwent more edits than normally allowed by the Web, Cool’s directionless structure allows for far too much indulgent meandering.
The opening chapters start out promisingly enough, with Knowles chronicling his troubled home life: His grandmother was a schizophrenic; his mother, a constant drinker who died in a fire. Knowles’ determination not to repeat their mistakes is one of the book’s few genuinely heartfelt sentiments. But while one senses that these incidents provided Knowles with a strong sense of purpose (he is admirably ambitious), they also seem to have provided him with a sense of self-empowerment so strong that he can barely keep his monster-size ego in check.
For the most part, Cool is an erratic read, with Knowles’ success story awkwardly interspersed with his views of the movie industry. As he points out, many of his critics have taken him to task for being a loose cannon, but what’s more troubling is his tendency toward simplistic arguments: Tell better stories, he posits, and the movies will be better; market them more intelligently, and more people will see them. His motivations may be justifiable, but his solutions are mostly silly and obtuse.
More damaging to Knowles’ cinematic analysis is his proclivity for name-dropping. Throughout the book, Knowles giddily relays a laundry list of Tinseltown biggies to whom he has become a trusted adviser — directors like Robert Rodriguez and execs like Mike Medavoy. And he casually tosses off self-serving anecdotes: ”Every time I visit Los Angeles now, there are a handful of studio guys I always try to visit who give me the inside dope.” Ain’t he cool?
And those who haven’t cozied up to Knowles are in for trouble. In one of Cool’s most inexplicable passages, he unleashes a bizarre diatribe — character assassination would be more like it — against Joseph Farrell, the head of Hollywood’s biggest test-marketing firm, NRG. In just under 40 insufferable pages, Knowles presents an embarassingly biased argument that essentially casts Farrell as the devil, eventually accusing him of hiring a spy to follow Knowles around. It’s a strange tirade that verges on irresponsible. Even worse, it’s unwaveringly dull.
The Farrell manifesto is merely the most glaring evidence of why Knowles’ underdog amateurism — which was always part of his me-versus-the-big-boys charm — fails him on the printed page. With the Web, his sloppy missives, while eye-roll-inducing, were at least usually based on some juicy tidbit. Here, he rages on solely in the service of self-promotion — and unfortunately, one can’t scroll through the film-fanatic flotsam and glean the occasional insight. As Knowles argues, unconvincingly, ”I may not have been to journalism school. But I have seen All the President’s Men.” He would have been better off reading the book.