Let’s get this out in the open: being a movie critic is a pretty easy job. It’s not all fun and games and popcorn — you have to deal with publicists, for one thing, and coming up with new and intelligent things to say about cookie-cutter studio movies is a challenge, and you often have to sit through movies you’re not all that excited to see. But, to be clear, we’re not breaking rocks here. You get to see movies for free before they’re released, often in the comfort of private screening rooms, and you get to pontificate about them for (hopefully) lots of readers. It’s a pretty cushy gig. And that’s why it’s so maddening that the New York Observer’s Rex Reed continues to fuck it up — and why it’s time to take the job away from him.
The current object of ire w/r/t Mr. Reed is his dismissive, ill-informed, and utterly ridiculous review of V/H/S/2, the taut and effective horror anthology that hits theaters this week. I’m not going to link to that review, because that’s what they want. Since it’s so brief, here it is in its entirety:
In this indescribably gory, violent, plotless and deranged purloin of every horror movie ever made by amateurs with a wobbly, nauseating handheld camera, seven unknown directors hell-bent on remaining that way enter a dark, deserted house containing a pile of VHS tapes. One by one, they insert the tapes, and onto the screen flash five episodic creep shows involving a mountain biker pursued by flesh-eating zombies, a cult of Satan worshipers and a sleepover invaded by psycho kidnappers told from the perspective of a GoPro camera attached to the back of a dog. V/H/S/2 is a diabolically psychotic, sub-mental and completely unwatchable disaster that I happily deserted when a man with a retinal implant scooped out his bionic eye with a sharp object, splattering blood all over the camera. Your move, and you’re welcome to it.
Though the “review” is filled with inaccuracies (seriously, there are three major errors in a four-sentence paragraph), the second-to-last sentence is what’s attracting most of the attention — because, you see, the moment when Mr. Reed admits to “happily deserting” is in the first full section of this anthology film, occurring roughly 20 minutes in. The Observer’s gleeful headline, “V/H/S/2 Is Unwatchable From Start To Finish,” seems like one they might’ve wanted to hold for a film that the reviewer had actually finished.
It is important, for the sake of context, to note that Mr. Reed was once a writer of value and importance. His work was usually more about gossip than consideration of film art, but in his heyday — the late ‘60s and ‘70s — his writings were frisky, funny, and whip-smart, and nobody spiced up a Dick Cavett Show panel better. Even when given the unenviable task of helping fill Siskel & Ebert’s shoes when they left At the Movies for their own syndicated program, his views were frequently insightful and well-considered.
But that time has long passed. Mr. Reed is 74 years old, and if there were ever a case for mandatory retirement, it is this one. Consider, if you will, the repercussions of any of these employment offenses if he were in any line of work besides film criticism:
Inability to complete tasks
V/H/S/2 runs an hour and 36 minutes. When it is your job to watch and write about movies, you have to watch the entire movie. This should not have to be explained, much less to someone who’s supposedly been doing it for something like 50 years. If you can’t subject yourself to the burdensome task of continuing to sit in a comfy screening room chair and finish a movie, then guess what? You don’t get to write about it.
The case of V/H/S/2 is particularly egregious, since it’s an anthology film by seven different directors (and contrary to Reed’s ill-informed paragraph — I refuse to call it a review — most of them are not “unknown”). So the fact that the wraparound opening and first short film rubbed Reed the wrong way still meant he was in no position to judge the rest of the film; several of those who were otherwise indifferent to the picture, for example, have sung the praises of Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven,” the centerpiece segment. Reed doesn’t know if that segment is any good, because he left. If he were working for, say, a financial firm, and drafted his report on a company’s potential profitability after only reading one-fifth of their annual report, he’d be shown the door and quick.
Earlier this year, Reed raised the ire of the Internet for his offensive harangue against Identity Thief and its star Melissa McCarthy, whom he branded “humungous,” “tractor-sized,” and “a female hippo.” The piece was a sour reminder of his early days, when he and fellow critics like John Simon would bitchily roast an actor’s appearance rather than the work he or she did. When Reed was rightfully called out for his vile bullying, he insisted he is “a critic whose opinions are constitutionally protected by law” (Reed appears to know even less about the Constitution than he does about movies), and said he was merely fat-shaming McCarthy because “I have too many friends that have died of obesity-related illnesses, heart problems and diabetes… I don’t find this to be the subject of a lot of humor.” But McCarthy got the last, best word on the matter: “I felt really bad for someone who is swimming in so much hate.”
In his pan of Park Chan-wook’s brilliant, mesmerizing Oldboy (and let’s not even get into the fact that he was panning Oldboy), Reed offered up this brilliant bit of penetrating social commentary: “What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots, dug up from the grave and then served in earthenware pots sold at the Seoul airport as souvenirs?” I suppose, when condemning Mr. Reed’s terrible writing, we should take into account the fact that he comes from a nation weaned on Big Macs and deep-fried sticks of butter. What else can you expect?
If you’ve ever heard the rumor that Marisa Tomei’s surprise Oscar win for My Cousin Vinny was actually a ceremony error, it’s probably because of Mr. Reed. In a 1997 TV interview with Geraldo Rivera, he insisted that presenter Jack Palance was “drunk” or “stoned” at the telecast, and his mistake was preserved thanks to a “massive cover-up.” Roger Ebert got the head of the Academy to refute the claim (“If such a scenario were ever to occur, the Price Waterhouse people backstage would simply step out onstage and point out the error”) and concluded, “Not only is the rumor untrue, it is unfair to Marisa Tomei, and Rex Reed owes her an apology.”
Poor job performance
When it comes down to it, this should be the area of Mr. Reed’s performance evaluation that gets him shit-canned. Simply put, for years Reed has been getting basic facts wrong in his pieces, and failing to grasp simple concepts of moviemaking. Take, for example, his 2008 review of The Dark Knight, in which he is eluded by the concept of reboots: “The Dark Knight takes up where [Batman Begins] left off, but if it’s a follow-up that introduces a comprehensive sociopath called the Joker, then how do you explain the fact that the Joker made his debut years ago as Jack Nicholson? It’s just one of the things that makes no sense, but hey-ho, since when did Batman and logic morph?” No, Rex, it makes perfect sense — it’s that common sense so frequently eludes you.
Then there was his review of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, in which he could not figure out why this story of New York’s Irish-American gangs didn’t have more Italians in it: “Mr. Scorsese fails to deliver the necessary cinematic images that explain the times and embody so many clashing points of view with coherence. (No mention of the Italians, who survived it all to start the Mafia.)” Except they didn’t survive it all to start the Mafia; the bulk of Gangs is set in 1862, but the primary period of Italian immigration to America was from 1880 to 1920. They weren’t in the movie because they weren’t there yet.
For sheer factual inaccuracy and poor comprehension, however, nothing equals his notorious “takedown” of Cabin in the Woods, in which Reed gets the entire plot of the picture wrong (“It’s all part of an elaborate video game that allows paying customers to watch real people slaughtered according to the horror of choice”) and described events that never occurred (“Vampires circle the moon and suck the hot stud’s blood”). It was one of the few instances in the history of film criticism where the oft-contrarian question “Did we see the same movie?” was actually worth asking.
But that review also speaks to a greater, overarching problem with Mr. Reed and his “criticism.” He dismissed Cabin, an ingenious deconstruction of horror movie tropes and the moviegoing experience itself, as “the kind of time-wasting drivel designed to appeal to electronics nerds and skateboarders addicted to Xbox 360 video games whose knowledge of the arts begins and ends with MTV2.” That’s the kind of “cranky old man” line that increasingly encapsulates the tone and perspective of Reed’s work. It’s not just that he dislikes tentpole blockbusters or gory, youth-geared pictures like Cabin in the Woods or V/H/S/2; it’s that he’s entirely out of step with the best of independent cinema as well, which is about the only conclusion one can draw from his review of The Master. However you feel about that film (and it’s a divisive one), feast your eyes on this line: “It might not even be the worst movie ever made, depending on how you feel about such hollow, juvenile and superficial trash as I ♥ Huckabees, Brewster McCloud, Punch-Drunk Love, Mulholland Drive, The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost Highway, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and … well, as they said in Hollywood during the McCarthy witch hunts, ‘the list goes on.’” The list, in this case, being one that includes some of the finest films of the past decade and a half.
There’s no shame in “aging out” of the job of film critic. The best who ever lived, Pauline Kael, did it; “The last time I was [at the cinema] I saw an awful lot of movies that weren’t worth writing about,” she said upon her retirement in 1991. “You can take a lot of bad movies when you’re younger, but when you’re older you wonder why you’re doing it to yourself.”
At this point, Reed appears to be doing it to himself — and the Observer appears to continue running him — for the attention. And in an environment where film reviews are easy to come by and not necessarily a source of heavy traffic, running click-bait trollery that people will hate-read may be a viable business model. But it’s doing no favors to the publication (which, remember, once boasted Andrew Sarris’ byline) when they run Reed’s latest bit of hackery, or when they turn the responses to his McCarthy attack into a listicle, or when his half-assed V/H/S/2 piece is tweeted tauntingly thus: “Horror fans horrified by Rex’s weak stomach for gore could stand to develop a stronger stomach for criticism.” No, it’s not that we can’t take criticism. It’s that your writer is no longer providing it.