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Dumbing Down The Film Critic

Ben Lyons Has A Seat On The Durable 'At The Movies,' But Detractors Say He's Just A Celeb-loving Studio Shill.

December 28, 2008|Chris Lee

Is Ben Lyons the most hated film critic in America?

In the four months since the fresh-faced 27-year-old "movie dude" for the E! Entertainment Network was installed to co-host a revamped version of the venerable movie review program "At the Movies," he has gotten a resounding thumbs down from an angry mob of film bloggers, columnists, professional movie critics and fans of the show. Consensus is that Lyons, the son of New York film critic Jeffrey Lyons, is unworthy of the balcony seats once occupied by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on the TV mainstay that has rallied audiences into theaters for more than three decades.

"His integrity's out the window. He has no taste," said Erik Childress, vice president of the Chicago Film Critics Assn. "Everyone thinks he's a joke."

Lyons became infamous in film circles for calling Will Smith's 2007 zombie-vampire movie "I Am Legend" "one of the greatest movies ever made." That appraisal became a key part of the movie's print advertising campaign.

"One of the 'greatest movies ever made'?" said Childress, who's also a movie reviewer for "Next to 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'Citizen Kane'? The only way you can say that with a straight face is if you've only seen 50 movies in your life. Or you're trying to give quotes to appease someone who can do you a favor later."

Lyons declined to be interviewed for this story. But among the accusations flung his way: that he landed his job through nepotism, is unknowledgeable about movies, sucks up to celebrities and, most damaging, is a "quote whore" -- a shill for movie marketers whose all-too-frequent raves are repurposed as gushy pull quotes on movie ads, usually accompanied by several exclamation points.

Which would be of hardly any consequence were it not for the drastic transformation of film criticism. Long gone are the times when a vaunted single critic such as the New Yorker's Pauline Kael could inject a film into the national consciousness with a single positive review. These days, moviegoers are just as apt to check a movie's rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the popular movie-review aggregating website, as to read an actual review from a major news organization.

Worse, with readership plummeting, newspapers and magazines have had to drastically thin their ranks of critics. In recent months, the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Newsweek, Newsday, the Village Voice and The Times, among other outlets, have let critics go. Meanwhile, movie marketing has never been more pervasive, and many studio summer blockbusters are now described as "critic proof," meaning that negative reviews do nothing to affect the box office.

In this light, Lyons' ascension to the "throne" of televised film criticism has come to represent something more than just the changing of the guard -- many view it as yet another example of the dumbing down of media and of celebrity triumphing over substance.

With his meat-and-potatoes good looks, frat-boy bonhomie and straight-down-the-pike delivery -- more reminiscent of a "SportsCenter" commentator than an erudite cultural arbiter -- Lyons is certainly not your father's movie reviewer. But it's his way of shrinking a sweeping critical pronouncement down to glossy sound-bite size that seems to most affront Lyons' detractors. Especially when held up to his predecessors' standards.

"It crystallizes everything that's wrong with American pop culture right now," said Scott Johnson, the blogger behind the website "I don't expect to agree with a critic all the time. But his approach is to throw out blurbs just so he can get on a poster."

S.T. VanAirsdale, senior editor of the entertainment-industry-skewering blog Defamer, framed the debate around the so-called "Ben Lyons Hate Storm" in more direct terms. "It's a pretty microcosmic phenomenon, when you look at who hates him," VanAirsdale said. "But for people who take film criticism seriously, he's an imposition. If he's established himself as the benchmark for where popular criticism is headed, we're all kind of [in trouble]."

Setting a standard

Regime change has always been hard for fans of the show, many of whom began watching in the mid-'70s when it was hosted by Siskel and Ebert and known as "Sneak Previews." By 1979, it had become the highest-rated weekly entertainment series in the history of public broadcasting. Evolving into "At the Movies" in 1981 -- Jeffrey Lyons was hired to appear on "Sneak Previews" when Siskel and Ebert left over a contractual dispute -- it set the standard for subsequent movie review talk shows and remains the only such program to both brand itself in the American mind and change the face of film criticism -- some might say grossly oversimplifying it -- with its patented "thumbs up, thumbs down" rating system.

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