Movieline’s dismissal of Elvis Mitchell prompts a defense of film critics


Elvis Mitchell chatting with Joel and Ethan Coen in 2009. (Cameron Wittig)

Elvis Mitchell, a former film critic for the New York Times, has reportedly been dismissed from his most recent job as chief critic for Movieline. According to a Deadline report, Mitchell lost the gig, one he had held for three months, because of a dispute regarding his review of “Source Code.”

In his review, Mitchell makes reference to a pipe that Jeffrey Wright’s character smokes — which caught the attention of “Code” director Duncan Jones. “Find it odd Movieline choose to complain about Jeffrey Wright smoking a pipe, something in an old draft of the script thats not in the film,” Jones subsequently tweeted. That raised questions about whether Mitchell actually saw the movie or simply wrote his review based on a version of the screenplay he had read. (Fellow critics have since confirmed that they saw him at a screening in New York.)

Veteran film writer Anne Thompson suggests that Mitchell may have gotten the ax for reasons completely unrelated to the latest Jake Gyllenhaal thriller: namely, that Movieline is trying to cut costs, and the film expert, who once had his own series on Turner Classic Movies, has a reputation for being flaky.

Whatever the explanation, this episode — which has already sparked spirited online conversation in the filmmaking and reviewing community — is one of those moments that some may be tempted to point to and say: “See? Can’t trust film critics.” But they shouldn’t.

To be clear, I don’t know Elvis Mitchell. The closest I ever got to the man was the time he sat behind me at a screening of “A Serious Man” at the Toronto Film Festival. I don’t know why his gig at Movieline ended, or whether he’s as unreliable as Thompson and some others have suggested.

But as someone who wears multiple hats at The Post — including one as occasional film critic — and a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association, I know a little bit about people who review movies for a living.

Most critics are people who love movies. They relish the opportunity to plant their backsides in a well-worn stadium seat and watch an engaging story come to flickering life on a big screen. They also relish the opportunity to dissect the experience afterward, in their reviews as well as online and in conversations with fellow movie lovers.

Contrary to popular opinion, critics hate sitting through bad flicks, although, admittedly, they do sometimes get a schadenfreude high from blasting a piece of cinematic junk in a scathing review. (Exhibit A: my review of “Vampires Suck.”) And they really hate it when they make a mistake in one of their reviews — which, if you’ve seen multiple films in a week and are trying desperately to scrawl down plot details in a darkened multiplex with a pen that’s on the verge of losing ink, can occasionally happen.

Have I seen some respected film critics leave in the middle of a movie for a bathroom break and come back 10 minutes later, having clearly missed some crucial dialogue that might have been important for reviewing purposes? Yes.

Have I read some reviews that made me go, “Wait, did this person watch the same movie I watched? Because that’s not what happened at all.” Yes again.

But most critics, that wonderful breed of cineastes who never see the sun, want to do the right thing. And the right thing means giving an honest assessment of a film they watched in its entirety, with all the details about the production supplied in fully accurate fashion.

The circumstances of Mitchell’s departure from Movieline may remain a mystery. But let’s not allow this to serve as yet another excuse to take pot shots at critics, most of whom are just trying to do their jobs honorably. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, there is indeed honor in writing an insightful review of “Hop.”

When she isn’t at a movie theater or writing about movies, Jen Chaney is ... um ... probably at home, watching a movie.

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