Roger Ebert died a few days ago, and I noticed a lot of people linked to his harshest movie reviews. Why not link, instead, to reviews of the movies he liked best? I admit that an extremely harsh review can be quite entertaining. When you are passionately bashing something, there seem to be many opportunities for humor. However, in reading some of his harshest reviews, I noticed that much of what is entertaining is not exactly witty. For example, in his review of Transformers:
The plot is incomprehensible. The dialog of the Autobots®, Decepticons® and Otherbots® is meaningless word flap. Their accents are Brooklyese, British and hip-hop, as befits a race from the distant stars. Their appearance looks like junkyard throw-up. They are dumb as a rock. They share the film with human characters who are much more interesting, and that is very faint praise indeed.
While this is an extremely harsh critique, he’s not exactly writing comedy here. It’s just an honest critique, extreme on the dislike scale.
Consider, as an alternative, a critique that as extreme on the favorable scale:
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is one of the greatest of all fantasy films, even though it is anchored so firmly in the reality of war….The film is visually stunning…What makes Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” so powerful, I think, is that it brings together two kinds of material, obviously not compatible, and insists on playing true to both, right to the end. Because there is no compromise there is no escape route, and the dangers in each world are always present in the other. Del Toro talks of the “rule of three” in fables (three doors, three rules, three fairies, three thrones). I am not sure three viewings of this film would be enough, however.
The extremely critical review seems to be funnier than the glowing one, even if neither is exactly making jokes.
I do recall a few cases where someone was so extreme in their praise that the description itself was entertaining and funny. But for the most part, that is difficult to accomplish.
Why the asymmetry?
I think this is because we are used to hearing people give extreme praise. In polite society, you compliment often, even if insincere. The norm is complimenting more than is warranted. Thus, it’s hard for praise to catch us off guard.
On the other hand, we are not used to extremely negative comments. Simon Cowell is entertaining for that reason. In normal interactions, if you do not like someone’s work, you try to say so in a nice way (soften the blow; give them encouragement). Thus, the extremely harsh critique is not what we are used to hearing, so there is an incongruity.