(Not Such a) Thriller!

Critics give movie studios a thumbs-down for twisting their words.

Of all the illusions Hollywood creates, perhaps none dazzle more than those used in film advertising. It’s a final cut of sorts; a studio takes a review and “edits” it for print and television ads. In the end, a mediocre film is “GREAT!” A real loser is “A WINNER!” And nothing is sacred, not even Gene Siskel’s and Roger Ebert’s thumbs.

The Chicago duo couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw ads for Disney’s Hercules that featured a scene from the animated film in which the character Hades points his thumbs skyward and says, “Two thumbs way, way up.” There was just one small problem with Disney’s marketing strategy: Siskel had given the film a thumbs-down. “We objected that this was misleading,” Ebert says. The ads were dropped — with an apology.

Some critics say the real enemy is within, and that even well-known critics write positive reviews in order to ensure seeing their names in lights. Terrence Rafferty, critic-at-large for GQ, laments that even the most recognizable pillar of the profession is crumbling. “The thumb has been totally devalued. What’s next? Two giant, engorged, throbbing thumbs up?”

But while all critics have war stories about studios, many are more concerned about being mistaken for “quote whores” — lesser-known critics who provide studios with hyped-up quotes, no matter how bad the movie.

Still, studios twist critics’ words — a practice as old as showbiz itself. Here are a few examples of bad reviews made good:

Movie: Seven
(New Line Cinema, 1995)
Ad copy: “A masterpiece.” — Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly
What Gleiberman really said: “The deadly sins premise…is actually rather corny; it’s like something out of a Clive Barker potboiler…. The credits sequence, with its jumpy frames and near-subliminal flashes of psychoparaphernalia, is a small masterpiece of dementia.”

Movie: Hoodlum
(United Artists, 1997)
Ad copy: “Irresistible.” — Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times
What Turan really said: “Even [Laurence Fishburne’s] incendiary performance can’t ignite Hoodlum, a would-be gangster epic that generates less heat than a nickel cigar…. Fishburne’s Bumpy is fierce, magnetic, irresistible…. But even this actor…can only do so much.”

Movie: Foul Play
(Paramount, 1978)
Ad copy: “Good fun.” — David Ansen of Newsweek
What Ansen really said: “[The screenwriter’s] concoction is all in good fun…. But to anyone who has seen half the movies he appropriates, and can therefore guess every twist of the plot miles before it happens, Foul Play‘s frenetic eagerness to please is about as refreshing as the whiff of an exhaust pipe on a hot city afternoon.”

Movie: Tales From the Darkside: The Movie
(Paramount, 1990)
Ad copy: “It’s fun.” — Janet Maslin of the New York Times
What Maslin really said: “Nothing about Tales From the Darkside is likely to give anyone much of a scare. But thanks to casting that is savvier than the horror norm…at least it’s fun.”

Maslin says when her two boys came home with this movie, she nixed it. “Are you sure you don’t like it?” they taunted, bringing out the video’s jacket — featuring Maslin’s name and her “recommendation.”


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