Over the years, I’ve sat in as a guest critic working both sides of the “&” on the long-running cinephile TV show most recently known as At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper. So with all the power vested in me by the authority of having had my thumb photographed for publicity purposes, let me say this about the announcement that Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, two younger, presumably groovier guys with no particular movie-critic cred, are being prepped to take the Disney-produced show in “a new direction”: That new direction should have been charted years ago. It may as well be now.
I don’t mean that younger, superficially groovier guys with no particular movie-critic cred should have been installed in a misbegotten attempt to woo younger, groovier, movie-loving viewers who, uh, don’t watch old-paradigm TV shows like this one. I’ll wait until the show’s on the road before forming an opinion. Maybe. (FYI, I’d like to think that there’s even more of an educated, desirable audience for a well-matched, lively, substantive pair or trio or quartet of knowledgeable movie critics discussing the latest releases, than there is for two superficially groovy, well-connected guys named Ben. Maybe one could even be other-than-male, or other-than-white!) What I mean is that when the brain tumor and death of Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel in 1999 left Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert without his original on-air sparring partner, the yang to his yin—well, back then, the thumbs should have been retired and the popcorn recipe reformulated.
Look, the thumbs were a Siskel & Ebert thing, no one else’s. (As it is, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s widow share copyright ownership of the thumb-as-critical-signature.) The two print journalists, with faces made for radio, were different in temperament, different in aesthetic taste, different in bulk—and matched in energy, passion, and, at the time, critical heft, too. But then, after Siskel’s death, and as Ebert’s own national stature grew substantially, for a while the show became Ebert-plus-guest-thumb. (That was me, once or twice.) The give-and-take was already unbalanced. And when Richard Roeper—a newspaper columnist and entertainment writer with smooth on-air skills but not, himself, an established movie critic—was selected as Siskel’s permanent successor, the show became about Ebert the influential critic, plus the guy in Siskel’s chair. In other words, the critical mismatch further distorted the format’s original intent.
Now, alas, for the past two years, Ebert’s own health problems have kept him mute and off screen. (Oh, he’s still vivacious, highly articulate, and writes up a storm; he just ain’t, as he puts it, “a pretty boy no more.”) But face it, minus its original energy source, for a long while now Ebert & Roeper At the Movies has become a marginal infotainment show starring the not-quite-critic-guy in Siskel’s chair, plus a guest guest-thumb. (One time that was me, too; most recently and most regularly, it was my colleagues A.O.Scott from The New York Times and Michael Phillips from The Chicago Tribune.)
So like I said, a plan to rest the thumbs is wise. The only question is, does handing off a venerable talking-heads show invented to encourage thoughtful national conversation about movies to these newbies count as giving grown-up movie-lovers the finger?