MovieMom's Double Life
Nell Minow has settled into her seat in a Georgetown theater, her black loafers propped up on the railing in front of her, a notebook on her lap. She and about 15 other local movie reviewers are here to see "Knowing" -- a PG-13 action flick about a boozily depressed father and scientific genius, played by Nicolas Cage, who cracks a coded alien message about earth's imminent fiery destruction. At particularly cliched moments, Minow, the 57-year-old film reviewer known to hundreds of thousands of online followers and radio listeners as Movie Mom, giggles. She shakes her head and scrawls a few notes between the intermittent chuckles.
She's so much in her element in the darkened theater that it's difficult to imagine her in her other line of work: as a sharp-tongued, widely quoted expert on executive compensation and shareholder rights for a firm called the Corporate Library. (The day after she watches "Knowing," she'll head to New York to participate in a debate sponsored by a forum called Intelligence Squared U.S. to be aired on National Public Radio. The topic is whether Wall Street or Washington is more responsible for the country's financial meltdown. Minow blames Wall Street, reminding her audience that Countrywide Financial CEO Angelo Mozilo, who faces federal fraud charges, was paid $600 million "as he took the stock down 78 percent and took the economy down with it.")
Right now, however, she's focused on the action on the movie screen, sighing deeply at "Knowing's" increasingly preposterous, frenetic plot. At the end, she succumbs to a full belly laugh when (spoiler alert!) a spaceship descends to whisk the film's wide-eyed children, and, inexplicably, a white bunny, to a new Eden on a distant planet.
As the credits roll, many in the audience, which includes not only critics but a boisterous crowd that won free tickets, clap wildly. The reviewers file out quietly past a studio representative who tries to elicit some feedback from each one. "Ms. Minow, how did you like it?" the rep asks.
"It was fabulously bad! Ridiculously bad!" she replies. But she's grinning. Even a bad movie is a good night out for Nell Minow.
Minow took on her Movie Mom persona when her children, Ben, now 25, and Rachel, 23, were small. She'd go to the video store, she says, and "see parents standing in front of the new releases shelf looking confused and helplessly asking people walking by, 'Is "The Nutty Professor" okay for a 6-year-old's birthday party?' I'd say, 'No, it's not.' "
Sensing a void, she created a rudimentary Web site of movie criticism for parents about 15 years ago, just as the Internet was becoming a phenomenon. Her blog eventually wound up on Yahoo!, where, after a year of unpaid postings, she received what she calls a "decent part-time salary."
Two years ago, Steve Waldman, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Beliefnet.com, a Web site devoted to faith and spiritual issues, wooed Minow to his site with the promise of a wider audience and the chance to write more general cultural criticism along with her reviews. Her Movie Mom page gets 150,000 to 200,000 visits a month, making Minow, "one of our most popular writers," Waldman says.
Minow, who is also the author of the book "The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies," has graded hundreds of films from A to F. Her reviews go beyond a simple accounting of the amount of sex and violence in a movie, offering scrutiny of any overt or subtle messages a child might perceive. She gives "Knowing" a D, for instance, not just because it's "another big, dumb, loud, effects-driven movie," but also because it "sinks from dumb to offensive first when it devotes so much loving detail to the graphic, even clinical depiction of pointless calamity and second when it ultimately and cynically appropriates signifiers of religious import in an attempt to justify itself."
She's a regular guest on at least 15 radio shows around the country, including Washington's WJFK (106.7 FM), where she's down-to-earth and no holds barred. One night, she's on the air with the station's 25-year-old critic, Kevin McCarthy, discussing "Miss March," a gross-out comedy about a guy who wakes up from a coma to find that his high school sweetheart has become a centerfold model. McCarthy laughs uproariously as Minow rants at length about how "brain cells died as I watched the movie," which she's given an F. She gleefully speculates about the origins of the film: "I think [the writers] wrote it on a cocktail napkin while they were high."
She's only slightly less caustic when she's critiquing corporations from her part-time perch at the Corporate Library, an independent firm that researches and analyzes the management structure of top-tier companies. Asked about JPMorgan Chase's plans to spend $120 million on two luxury corporate jets while receiving millions in government bailout funds, Minow called it "a remarkably boneheaded decision" during an interview with ABC News. She was quickly quoted on blog after blog.