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Criticwire Survey: Favorite (and Least Favorite) Fictional Critics

Criticwire Survey: Favorite (and Least Favorite) Fictional Critics

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: “Birdman, or (The
Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” features an imperious New
York Times critic played by
Lindsay Duncan who warns Michael Keaton’s Broadway-transgressing movie
star, “I’m going to destroy your play. That’s pretty much par for the
course as far as onscreen depictions of critics go, but there are exceptions. What’s your
favorite fictional portrait of a critic, and your least favorite?

Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine

I imagine this will be a common response, but I’m going with Anton Ego in “Ratatouille” as my favorite example of a critic. When we see Ego in action (even if you leave aside his name), it’s easy to presume the worst of Brad Bird’s creation: his office is shaped like a coffin, he berates his assistant (because why wouldn’t a critic need a compliant assistant), and he seems to thrive on nastiness. But the third-act turnaround manages to feel both honest to the act of criticism as well as to the notion that a Grinch-like man’s heart can be revived thanks to an amazing plate of food, that a lifetime of grouchiness can be nullified by a childhood remembrance. It helps that Peter O’Toole’s excellent in his few scenes, up to and including the climactic review/monologue about the art of criticism.

For the worst example of a critic in film, I’m going with Bob Balaban’s character, Farber, from “Lady in the Water.” It’s maybe easier to come up with worse characters named after critics — Mayor Ebert from “Godzilla” is the winner there — but the autobiographical elements of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2006 film are difficult to avoid. Not only does he play a writer whose work is so important that it will literally change the world, but one of the more abrasive, obnoxious, and frequently wrong characters is Balaban’s film critic, named after one of the first greats. Funny how critics only became worthy of shame to Shyamalan after “The Village,” not during the period when they praised him for “Signs,” “The Sixth Sense,” and the like.

Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com, Vulture

Anton Ego in “Ratatouille” is my favorite, because he is not making a big show of being above it all. He has standards and takes them seriously, but he also has the good grace to admit when a work of art has vaulted his barricades of rationality and touched him.

Michael Dunaway, Paste Magazine

Since the question didn’t specify what kind of critic, I’m going to cheat just a bit and choose the food critic from “Ratatouille,” deliciously named Ego. As with everything else in Brad Bird’s third feature, he’s nearly perfect.

Scott RenshawSalt Lake City Weekly

There’s an inevitable element of “dish it out but can’t take it” any time a critic knocks a character who’s also a critic, but however thin-skinned it might make us to comment on it, it can’t be nearly as thin-skinned as M. Night Shyamalan was with his pompous Harry Farber character from “Lady in the Water.” And while the obvious answer to embrace might be “Ratatouille’s” Anton Ego, he’s always kind of rubbed me the wrong way, too. I’ll throw some love to Speed & Tyrone of “Sneaking in the Movies” from Robert Townshend’s “Hollywood Shuffle.” Realism is very important to me; I give them serious high-fives.

Luke Goodsell, Movie Mezzanine, 4:3

Favorite: I’ve always loved Joe Dante’s absurd Siskel & Ebert parody in “Amazon Women on the Moon,” the bit where the critics break the fourth wall to review one of their viewers, Harvey Pitnik, a nobody slumped in front of his TV bemoaning their taste in “arty crap.” Pitnik’s banal existence gets a bruising two-thumbs down — “It takes him 30 years to develop any character at all, and by the times he does — who cares!” — though the Ebert avatar, showing his everyman empathy, does admit he “rather enjoyed the Kafkaesque touches.” It’s a sweet little inversion, and one of the rare times that critics have been played as likable antagonists (Dante would memorably demolish Leonard Maltin three years later in “Gremlins 2”). It’s also funny and pretty bleak, especially when Dante flips the clip segment on Pitnik watching himself watching the show, and the hosts get to critique their viewer’s dull life ending (and lack of a giant squid.)

Least favorite: Penny Hardwick, the ex-girlfriend of John Cusack in “High Fidelity” who worked as a film critic — for filling me with the fraudulent career dream that reviewers all got to use cool light-up pens to take notes in movies. How annoyed would everyone be if someone busted one of those out in a dark theater?

Alan Zilberman, Brightest Young Things

My favorite fictional critic is Steven Schwimmer, who is played by Robert Downey Jr. in the film “Game 6” (which also stars Michael Keaton). He goes to plays in disguise and armed because his reviews are so brutally honest. Any critic who steadfastly believes, “The truth is always unfair… the truth is never gentle,” is admirable, idealized example of the profession. My least favorite fictional critic is Penny Hardwick from “High Fidelity” because I find it distracting when fellow critics use a light-up pen at screenings.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

My favorite portrayal of a fictional critic is Steven Schwimmer from “Game 6,” played by Robert Downey, Jr. Ironically, I think my least favorite is from a different Michael Keaton movie, which is Tabitha from “Birdman,” played by Lindsay Duncan. I don’t particularly dislike the latter, but I feel like she’s a bit more one note than necessary in the film. As for the former, he’s just so out there and ridiculous in a movie that I really love, I had to cite him. If nothing else, it’ll remind folks that Game 6 exists and that they should check it out if they haven’t already seen it. It’s memorable in all ways, up to and including the oddball critic that RDJ portrays.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

I’ve spent a good couple of days racking my brain around this question. I’m going to go with Jean Desailly’s literary critic Pierre Lachenay from Francois Truffaut’s “The Soft Skin.” Given Truffaut’s pedigree as a film critic it’s interesting to see him attempt to portray the critic as a tortured figure, capable of making the wrong decisions. It’s the 30th anniversary of Truffaut’s premature death this week, so it seems doubly appropriate to mention him this week. As for the worst, I’m generally quite fond of M.Night Shyamalan’s strange “Lady in the Water,” but the critic in that film is particularly cringeworthy, especially in his fate.

Monica Castillo, Movie Mezzanine, Paste Magazine

I have a soft spot for the character of Anton Ego in Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” Voiced by Peter O’Toole, his character begins cartoonishly wicked, but softens when he’s moved by impressive cooking. He’s not one note and, like Lindsay Duncan’s hellbent critic in “Birdman,” is able to admit their fondness for a formerly disliked artist. Ego’s flashback sequence to when his mother used to make his favorite dish-ratatouille-relates to so many of the formative experiences film critics share, like going to the movies with their parents, spending a rainy day binging on rented tapes, or staying up late to watch a forbidden film on TV. But of course, there’s also Jay Sherman and “The Critic” to admire.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

I have to say I adored the late George Sanders, who won the 1950 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his reptilian turn as theatre critic Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve.” His cynical commentary is like butter (“You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point”) and I find him endlessly amusing. Even his suicide note in 1972 was deeply sardonic: “I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool.”

I should love Lindsay Duncan’s critic in “Birdman,” who is clearly in the Sanders/DeWitt mold. But somehow I find her brand of butter to be rancid, so right now, she’d be my pick for least favorite fictional critic. I have trouble buying the notion that any critic, real or imaginary, would vow to an artist’s face to “destroy” their work, sight unseen. 

Danny Bowes, Salt Lake City Weekly

Addison DeWitt is the all-time champ in this category and it’s not even close. Least favorite is the guy in “Annie Hall” who leaves Woody no choice but to bring out Marshall McLuhan. Not that the actor or portrayal are bad (both are spot-on) but because in real life that kind of reductive, tweed-draped bullshit should be grounds for justifiable homicide.

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer, Yahoo!

I love and loathe Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve,” a cross between Oscar Wilde and Pygmalion. I love the first critic, played by Sid Caesar in “The History of the World, Part I,” who pisses on a cave painting. I hate the Farber character played by Bob Balaban in “Lady in the Water.” Likewise the critic in “Birdman.”

Calum Marsh, Village Voice, the New Yorker

Most of the best fictional critics are found in literature, rather than film: You’ve got Charles Kinbote, the narrator of “Pale Fire”; Milton Appel, Zuckerman’s nemesis in “The Anatomy Lesson”; and obviously the narrator of “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” who puts us all to shame. My favorite critic is a real bastard: Richard Tull, the hero (of sorts) of Martin Amis’s “The Information.” He’s a failed author plugging away at a laborious postmodern novel who supports himself dashing off weekly book reviews (he also moonlights, increasingly, as an editor at a vanity publisher, which he loathes). He’s volatile, and rancorous, but he’s also a great wit — probably the best we can hope for in this business. 

Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound, Fandor

My favorite depiction of a fictional critic is of Daniel Martin, the eponymous narrator of John Fowles’s dense 1977 Bildungsroman, which I read once in Tuscany. My least favorite depiction of a fictional critic is quite possibly of the very same character. That’s the way things roll with Fowles.

Greg Cwik, Indiewire, the Believer

Everyone’s favorite fictional critic is Jay Sherman, even if he has holes in his “Little Mermaid” underwear. He loves boring French films. David Manning is my least favorite fictional critic. He basically rated movies on a scale of good to excellent. To him I say, “Boo-urns! Boo-urns!”

Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire

Technically, the correct answer to the best fictional portrait of a critic is Anton Ego from “Ratatouille.” But my personal favorite, without a doubt, comes from the 1994-1995 series “The Critic,” a series which combined the precision comedy talents of “The Simpsons” with some razor sharp satire of film. It’s also weirdly honest when it comes to acknowledging that many critics are born out of frustrated artists, and Jon Lovitz is flat-out brilliant at creating a lovable figure out of a normally unlikeable character type, and there’s an episode where Siskel and Ebert guest-star as themselves. There’s a little bit of Jay Sherman in all of us. There’s also a little bit of Addison DeWitt, the smug, manipulative schemer of “All About Eve,” in all of us — Addison DeWitt is drunk on his own power for much of the film, salivating over the opportunity to build up artists and tear them down. His ego serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who fears forgetting why they were drawn to criticism — the opportunity to discover great media first, and celebrate it. 

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times

Favorite: Anton Ego, “Ratatouille.”

Least favorite: Harry Farber, “Lady in the Water.”

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, Slant Magazine

I can’t think of a fictional critic whose travails I enjoyed more than Jon Lovitz’s Jay Sherman in the short-lived animated series, “The Critic.” On the other end of the cartoon spectrum is Peter O’Toole’s Anton Ego in “Ratatouille,” a caricature that leans too heavily on the stereotypical frustrated wannabe trope. A more recent example is Oliver Platt’s Ramsey Michel in “Chef,” a sort of whipping boy stand-in for Jon Favreau’s vitriol against the same writers that have championed much of his work.

Lili Loofbourow, Los Angeles Review of Books 

Favorite: Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve”

Dan Schindel, Los Angeles Magazine

Are most people going to say Anton Ego? Or will they be so afraid of going for a cliched answer that no one ends up mentioning him? Whatever. Anyway, Jay Sherman is the best by a mile, if only because he’s an actual human being and all that. Most depictions of critics are strawmen stuffed by artists of questionable ability with bones to pick. Al Jean, Mike Reiss, and company recognized that a good deal of stuff stinks, and created a critic character who actually cares about movies… then surrounded him with horrible ones.

Oh, and the best critic strawman is undoubtedly the First Critic from “History of the World, Part I.” So elegantly succinct:

Stephen Whitty, Star-Ledger

Honestly, if we can throw all these slings and arrows we should be able to take a few — although it sometimes surprises me to see filmmakers whose early careers were truly bolstered by critical support to howl so loudly (and immediately) once one of their films isn’t universally acclaimed.

Favorite critics? George Sanders in “All About Eve,” of course, and if we can expand it a bit, the critic/columnist Waldo Lydecker in “Laura.” I discovered both movies so long ago I can remember thinking this was what life was going to be like. Alas.

Most realistic? Probably the Lester Bangs character in “Almost Famous,” even if he wasn’t really like Lester Bangs, but more like Cameron Crowe’s memories/wish fulfillments of what it meant, or should mean, to be covering entertainment. 

Least favorite? I think Lindsay Duncan’s critic in “Birdman” even surpasses Peter O’Toole’s in “Ratatouille” for most insufferable. On a lighter note, the critics I love to hate are the ones of “Theater of Blood.” I think I would have helped Vincent Price murder a few of them myself.

Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running

Favorite: Addison DeWitt, “All About Eve,” of course.

Least Favorite: The Erotic Connoisseur, “The Girlfriend Experience,” of course.

Nell Minow, Beliefnet

Peter O’Toole’s critic is the highlight of “Ratatouille,” and in many ways the ultimate movie portrayal of a critic. We all know what it feels like to review so much junk that you begin to believe you have lost your capacity to be surprised by greatness. Those reminders that we can still be thrilled are what keep us going. The critic who hates everything is a popular target in movies like “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which has Cary Grant as surely the handsomest critic ever on screen. The most acid-tongued was George Sauders’ Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve.” The comeuppance scene where he out-Eves Eve herself is a masterpiece. “Is it possible, even conceivable, that you’ve confused me with that gang of backward children you play tricks on, that you have the same contempt for me as you have for them?” 

My least favorite movie portrayal of a critic is probably Bob Hope in “Critic’s Choice.” He reviews his own wife’s play, for goodness’ sake! On the other hand, the onscreen critic I love best has a similar ethical lapse, but I can’t help loving the movie, one of my very favorites. That is David Niven in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,” as a character inspired by real-life theater critic Walter Kerr, based on his wife Jean Kerr’s wonderfully witty book of essays. Niven plays a character who, like Kerr, is a teacher turned critic. His devastating review of a play produced by his closest friend has a hilarious take-down of the musical star delectably played by Janis Paige. Her response (with photographers in tow) is magnificent. And, even in a light comedy co-starring Doris Day, Spring Byington, and Jack Weston, there is a very astute exploration of some of the genuine conflicts critics face. This critic gives that portrayal and that movie four stars.

Jordan Hoffman, New York Daily News, the Guardian

A little off the menu, but what can top this thermonuclear dissbomb? From Tom Robbins’ 1990 novel “Skinny Legs and All”:

“What exactly’s eatin’ you, honey?” Patsy asked her.

Ellen Cherry sighed into the heat-sticky phone. “I don’t know, mama. I can’t paint and I can’t fuck and I’m angry all the time. Now I know how a critic must feel.”

Richard Brody, New Yorker

Critics should be heard — or read — and not seen; which is to say that their (our) role is to avoid becoming a part of the situation on which we’re reporting, except that the inevitable mystique that would result from writing in invisibility is itself a story, which is why showing up and taking part, as a natural extension of authentic passion for aspects of the current cinema, is a mark of candor, one which invokes a necessary measure of good judgment (one’s own, and that of one’s editors) regarding lines that shouldn’t be crossed. That’s a long way of saying that, since critics can’t avoid being involved (“We are all involved”), they may as well be on-screen, as Serge Daney is in “Histoire(s) du cinéma” and Claude Baignères, in the role of an art dealer, is in “In Praise of Love.” My least-favorite on-screen critic is a favorite invention of a favorite director in a not-quite-favorite film, Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve”— who is everything a critic shouldn’t be and does everything a critic shouldn’t do. I think that the depiction of DeWitt’s outsized influence and inappropriate personal involvement in the daily activities of the theatre’s performers and creators is part of Mankiewicz’s satire on. . . not on critics as such but on the narrow hothouse confines of the theatre district and the theatre world. The depiction of DeWitt is, in effect, part of his pro-cinema, pro-Hollywood irony.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe

Best critic is the Michael Fassbender’s Lieutenant Archie Hicox, the cinephilic underground British agent in “Inglorious Basterds,” for revealing what true heroes film critics really are.

As for least favorite, there are so many that I will go with the most recent — the Times critic in “Birdman.” Not so much because the portrayal reiterates all the tiresome canards about critics seen in every other movie, but because it picks on a female critic. Sadly, women make up a small percentage of critics, which certainly reflects badly on the profession, but even more so on the film (most of which I liked). Given the underrepresentation of women among critics of all kinds, choosing a woman to bash adds a sour element of misogyny to “Birdman’s” lazy use of the predictable stereotype.

Jason Gorber, Twitch

Anton Ego in “Ratatouille” is a pretty great critic character in an equally great movie. Yes, he’s a pretentious schmuck at times, but the “risk very little” speech is a profound one with ideas that often come to mind when I’m fretting what to say about a given film.

There’s parts of the speech that I’d object to — many of us do risk quite a bit, as least in terms of financial security — but for many of us this is more calling than rational career. I do not “thrive on negative criticism,” and rarely find it “fun to write and to read”, yet also feel that there’s a role in saying something’s not for you, rather than the growing trend of only reviewing stuff you like.

Fundamentally, I do believe that great criticism, as rare as it may be, is an ideal that is a kind of art, part of a talmudic tradition that’s no less parasitic to what has come before than many of the works being discussed.

It’s the recognition of the great in a sea of dreck that makes this a job worth doing, especially when you really are at the forefront of getting the word out. As Ego notes, “There are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.” These “new” works are often fragile things, and occasionally, often during a festival or small theatrical run, a critic open to the possibility can actually play an active, positive role in getting the word out about a given film. This is when this job is truly great, and it’s nice for a fictional character to help remind one of that fact.

As for my least favourite fictional critic? Frankly, it’s those “colleagues” (many of whom get detailed beautifully by Erik Childress) who act as critics but do little more than as Erik dubs it “quote whore” their way onto ad campaigns. Forget any character on film, these jokers more than any rankle as they simultaneously cheapen what it is that I do, as well as take away paying work from those who might genuinely be open to that discovery that Ego speaks of above.

Edward Douglas, Coming Soon

I can’t really think of my least favorite critic but definitely one of my favorites was Bob Balaban in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water.” I know a lot of critics hated that movie and pointed to the critic being brutally savaged by some sort of wolf creature as a reason but I thought it was meant to be just as biting a satire as the criticism of critics in “Birdman” and I really enjoyed Balaban’s portrayal quite a bit.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

My favorite fictional critic is Ramsey Michel, as portrayed by Oliver Platt in the recent Jon Favreau movie “Chef.” I have a very firm belief that this movie is not about food at all, but actually about cinema. The main character, chef Carl Casper, represents Favreau, Dustin Hoffman and his restaurant are Kevin Feige and Marvel, and the whole story is about Favreau reclaiming his creative, post-“Iron Man” mojo by going out and making a heartfelt indie… just like “Chef.” Yeah, I know, I’m being excessively meta here. Anyway, Ramsey is tough when he needs to be, but only because he wants to encourage better, more courageous work. I think this is how most of us approach writing a negative review. In the end, though, he turns out to be an ardent supporter when Carl does something especially notable. Isn’t that the essence of being a film critic? We dole out tough love because we want more great movies, and when we find one, we praise it from the mountaintops. My least favorite fictional critic is the one played by Bob Balaban in “Lady in the Water.” It’s widely assumed that M. Night Shyamalan created this character as “revenge” against the critics who trashed his work on “The Village,” but rather than stinging, it only confirmed that he’d lost his touch.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

The witty Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve” is perhaps the ultimate critic in cinema, though I do have a soft spot for columnist Waldo Lydecker in “Laura” (if he counts). I was also rather taken with Richter Boudreau, the film critic played by Eric Stolz in the little seen “Keys to Tulsa,” though he didn’t go to the movies enough for me.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

Top onscreen depiction of a critic would have to go to Jay Sherman, “The Critic.” I love his show and think every kid should watch it…ughh, I suddenly feel so dirty. Least favorite would be Bob Balaban in “Lady in the Water” because I love Bob Balaban and don’t like seeing him killed, given a such a one-dimensional character, or the fact that he was in that movie. Ughh…thinking about Lady in the Water I suddenly feel so dirty. My favorite real life fictional critic is Film Critic Hulk, who is an actual critic but he isn’t actually a Hulk though in the context of his essays he is! Ain’t that somethin’?

Neil Young, The Hollywood Reporter, Tribune

Least favorite? How about Robin Harsch as François in Lionel Baier’s “Another Man”: feckless fop of a film-critic who doesn’t bother watching the pictures he’s assigned, instead plagiarizing the work of others. Bad egg! At one point he ends up nearly getting a testicle crushed by his chopstick-wielding g.f. — file under “don’t try this at home.” 

Favorite: Apparently Ron Jeremy once played a film-critic in some picture, but as I haven’t tracked down that XXX-rated gem I’ll plump for Ian Hendry as theater-world scribe Peregrine Devlin — “wielder of the brutal aphorism, master of the killing phrase” (oh yes!) — in Douglas Hickox’s deathless but death-packed horror farce “Theatre of Blood.”

He’s Ian Hendry at 42, so’s dashingly good-looking in a bruiserish sort of way; is nattily-attired alpha-dog in the Critics’ Circle; is wirily athletic and useful with an épee (even on a trampoline!). But the main reason why he’s #1 is that he sticks unflinchingly to his opinions, even when he’s helplessly tied to a chair with red-hot daggers inching towards his eyes, and recantation his only means of saving his eyesight/life: “Nothing you can do will sway me from my original judgement,” he heroically snarls at his tormentor, Vincent Price as Edward Lionheart.

Also, unlike all of his flaky/portly/decadent colleagues, he actually [SPOILER] lives to fight another day!

Kristy Puchko, Cinema Blend 

Favorite: Anton Ego from “Ratatouille.” I suspect he’ll be a popular pick, but it’s easy to understand why. He is at first a frightful beast. Tall, slim, and humorless, he is a villain who relishes tearing down any who dare to create. But as he takes that bite of the titular dish, we see a flash of the joy great art — in this case great cuisine — can bring. The film’s climax shows that at a critic’s core, we want to be wowed! We want the art to be good and awe-inspiring, just as the filmmaker’s do. We’re both on the side of art, though that is too often forgotten. 

Least favorite: “Lady in the Water’s” Harry Faber would be the worst for me. He was an arrogant, insufferable lout who is an elitist know-it-all through his final gruesome moments. His killing is essentially a punishment for his bad attitude that we’re meant to rejoice in. No, thanks.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A (tie): “Birdman” and “Listen Up Philip”

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Gone Girl,” “Whiplash”

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