Why Are Movie Reviewers So Mean?

Recently I watched “Heckler,” Jamie Kennedy’s documentary about comedians dealing with hecklers and other critics. A big section in the film talks about movie critics, I presume because so many comedians are in both standup (where you get hecklers) and in film. There’s a stretch where Kennedy confronts a few reviewers, some professional, some not, who gave him bad reviews, and a bunch of the interviewees

Setting aside the fact that every single piece of advice I have ever seen for writers, performers, and other creative folks who get reviewed says to not read reviews of your own work, I have a few points I want to make, since I’m a movie reviewer.

Critic is not the same as Reviewer

Reviewers write reviews. Critics write analytical essays, like  you wrote about books in school. Reviewers are writing to help their readers figure out if they want to see the film/comedian/musician/whatever themselves. Reviewers try not to spoil the movie/whatever (or should, anyway), because they assume their readers haven’t seen the show in question yet.

Critics write for people who’ve seen the show. They talk about its details and themes, and connect it to other important works in the same field.

Pauline Kael was a critic, and one of the best our country has seen. Roger Ebert is, at bottom, a reviewer, but his reviews have elements of criticism. That’s one of the reasons he’s my personal reviewing hero.

OK, now that I’ve gotten that semantic nitpick out of the way, onward!

There’s This Thing Called Burnout

Imagine for a moment that you could make a living consuming something you love. You have to consume it half a dozen times a week, and then write a detailed account of it.

Now do that every week for a year. For two years. For five years.

It sounds great, but let me promise you, it’s not. The more you consume, the more sensitive you become to quality. And, the same way that if someone pokes you once it’s annoying but if they poke you fifty times it’s fucking horrible and painful, the more you’re exposed to aspects of this thing you love that aren’t awesome, the more you come to hate them.

As with any job, over time it’s easy to burn out, and once you burn out, as a reviewer? Every movie you have to sit through that sucks (or that contains tropes you find annoying) is fucking torture. And you can’t leave in the middle if you take your job seriously, that’s like a food reviewer eating one bite of the veggies and reviewing the steak and mashed potatoes too! It’s a shitty situation.

So yes, reviewers once they burn out tend to get really, really nasty. I’ve written negative reviews, and it can be fun, the same way that talking shit about someone behind their back can be fun. It’s not healthy in excess, though, and I make an effort when I write a negative review to focus on the movie and be specific about what I didn’t like, because I want the review to be useful, not just entertaining. A lot of burned-out reviewers don’t bother with that.

It’s like Chris Rock says: I’m not sayin’ it’s right, but I understand.

I came very, very close to burning out about a year ago, and made the choice to cut back on how many films I see and to only see movies I’m actually expecting to like. That helped a lot. Roger Ebert has the ability to be generous to movies he doesn’t like and still review them fairly, and he sees hundreds of films a year (and has for decades), but I apparently don’t have that fortitude.

Reviewers and Hecklers are Not The Same

I added “Heckler” to my Netflix queue because I am fascinated by the whole heckler/comedian relationship. I love the different genres of takedown different comedians use (Patton Oswalt is my hero in this regard). Sadly, only the first section of the movie actually looks at that. The rest is comedians, actors, and musicians bitching about critics/reviewers and jerks who come up to them in public. Eli Roth tells a story about a guy in Prague approaching him and saying, after finding out he’s in town to film Hostel 2, that Hostel wasn’t that scary, it was just bloody.

That’s not fucking heckling. That’s criticism, in the “expressing a negative opinion” sense.

Reviewing isn’t heckling either. Consider: the heckler interrupts a live performance and forces everyone to hear him/her speak. A psychologist in the film talks about how it’s an attempt on the heckler’s part to put themselves above the performer and take away the performer’s right to speak even though everyone is there to see the performer.

A reviewer, on the other hand, is writing for publication or for radio/film broadcast (or podcasts, etc). They go and see the performance, then go home or to their workplace and write a review. They’re not forcibly encroaching on anybody’s attention.

Sure, there’s some of that same putting-oneself-above-the-performer thing in burned-out, angry reviews, but it’s just not the same.

Am I Being too Sensitive?

Probably. But I get the feeling that if I ever met Jamie Kennedy, and said I was a movie reviewer, he’d immediately assume I hate him. The fact is, I’ve only seen a couple of his movies (if that?) and I like his work in them. He was the best thing about the Scream movies until they wrote his character out!

I know that performers get a lot of shit from reviewers and other opinion-expressers, and I understand that over time, that shit builds up. It makes them extra-sensitive to it, makes them lump all their detractors and anyone like their detractors together.

You know how I understand? Reviewers get the same fucking thing. I’ve heard way more negative opinions about reviewers than positive ones. (Thankfully, I’ve heard almost entirely good things about my reviews! But then, I try to write the kind of reviews I want to read, and it seems like that’s the kind of reviews a lot of people want to read.)

So yeah, the instant Heckler started talking shit about reviewers and then only brought on hacks and idiots, and focused on the performers’ hurt feelings while simultaneously being really disrespectful of anybody else’s feelings, I got mad. You can’t whine about how other people talking shit about you makes you feel terrible and then talk shit about an entire group of people in public. Especially when you haven’t met most of the group in question.

I just wish the documentary had actually focused on what it promised, rather than wandering off into the performers’ hurt feelings and bashing an entire job class instead of just the burned-out/incompetent hacks they actually brought on and interviewed. (I mean, seriously. They had Richard Roeper on as an example of a reviewer. That guy is a joke when it comes to movie reviewing. Don’t get me started.)

In Conclusion

I was disappointed by Heckler. The first part was good, but the rest was a melange of fail. I expected better of Jamie Kennedy — dude has talent. It was largely not in evidence here, however.

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5 Responses to Why Are Movie Reviewers So Mean?

  1. I had a paid movie reviewing gig for about a year. I didn’t see a film in a theater for almost two years afterward. Burned out completely!

    • Ealasaid says:

      Preach it! I only review one movie per issue, generally, so I’ve been able to hang in there for a while (It’s been… *does math* 15 years now since I wrote my first review, and I’ve been writing for the local paper for just over 10 years). Well, that and I have an almost unhealthy love for movies. But the excitement I used to get when the lights dimmed has been replaced by an irritated “it’s about time” feeling, which is probably a bad sign.

  2. Ellen says:

    I wouldn’t say the “it’s about time” feeling is a bad sign. /I/ feel that way half the time too and I only go to movies I want to see! One of my jokes with Sean is “What movie did we come to see again?” once all the commercials and previews are over. Sometimes I actually /mean/ it, I literally can’t remember what movie it was we paid for until it finally starts up!

    On another note, I had noticed some time ago that you seemed to be falling into that old trap we had once discussed when you were in college while you were writing your thesis. You know, when we were like “why are they nitpicking over bad grammar, can’t they just enjoy the movie?” (I believe our specific example was a line of dialogue from the 2nd Mummy movie.) So yeah, you had once seemed to be getting into that groove with your reviews.

    I guess it was your near burnout kicking up. I was very relieved to see the turn for the better once you made your changes in viewing habits (though I never did know what was going on until now).

    Glad to see that you’ve worked it out for yourself and have made the changes you needed to to keep enjoying your films and the act of reviewing them!

  3. Rich Thomas says:

    I think you can compare a reviewer and a heckler in one instance. I have read reviews where the reviewer has care more about making jokes at the expense of the movie than the movie itself. It is a way for the reviewer to show how funny and witty they are. If a reviewer is just trying to make fun of the movie, it turns me off. I disregard those reviews. This is pretty rare the world of professional reviewers.

    Now I have to decide if I want to see Heckler.