Phony critics

I tend to get a good bit of my news from the television, the Internet, and very occasionally from the odd passing carrier pigeon. (Hey, I'm a little old school. So sue me.) But there are times when I'm very glad I still get the newspaper, or I might have missed this item from the Aug. 4 issue of The New York Times.

"Sony Pictures Entertainment must pay $1.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that accused it of trumpeting the praise of a non-existent newspaper critic to promote its films, The Associated Press reported. The plaudits for films like 'A Knight's Tale,' 'The Animal,' 'Vertical Limit,' 'Hollow Man,' and 'The Patriot' were attributed to David Manning of the Ridgefield Press, but at the time The Ridgefield Press, a weekly in Connecticut did not have a film critic, the lawsuit said.

"Originated by two California filmgoers, the suit asserted that advertisements quoting Manning fooled them into seeing 'A Knight's Tale.' Under terms of the settlement in Los Angeles Superior Court, Sony Pictures did not admit any liability. It declined comment. Norman Blumenthal, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said moviegoers who saw the films during their original runs would have to file a claim to be eligible for a $5-a-ticket reimbursement. Money remaining after the satisfaction of claims is to go to charity, he said."

The questions, whose answers are almost certainly under court seal, abound. It's almost hard to know where to begin.

Let's start with the most obvious: how can the plaintiffs possibly complain, let alone file suit, when they only have to pay five bucks a ticket to go to the movies? I'm going to shell out over twice that much tonight to see 'The Aristocrats,' and there aren't even going to be any special effects. They should thank Sony Pictures and their local chain for just letting them into the theater.

Second, isn't it the case that anyone who is willing to be convinced under any circumstances to see the Rob Schneider picture 'The Animal' deserves what they get? You would think they might be thankful for the lesson: to venture warily wherever Mr. Schneider is concerned. I say this, aware that 'Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo' is coming to theaters everywhere, even ones, presumably, that charge less than half of what I'm going to pay tonight to see "The Aristocrats."

Third, have the plaintiffs ever seen a movie advertisement before? Presumably they weren't moved particularly by the long-standing and highly burnished critical reputation of Mr. Manning and his fine run with the Ridgefield Press, because, let us remember, Mr. Manning does not seem to exist. As a result, the plaintiffs presumably read the blurbs on the ads, and said something along the lines of, "Hey, honey, this person I don't know very much about has been quoted as saying that 'Vertical Limit' is the best movie since Citizen Kane. Do you have a spare five dollar bill?"

Sure, if the movie company did indeed make up quotes, it's not a particularly spectacular example of ethical behavior, but when most of the country is aware that movie ads turn critical quotes like, "If you see this movie, you'll be really sorry; I'm amazed at the sheer badness of this film" into "If you see this movie, you'll be amazed!" I think it's fair to say that you might want to assume that the company that made the film might be shading things just a teensy weensy bit and to accept just a bit of personal agency here.

But there are far more serious issues at hand for me as a movie and television critic. The first is, of course, that this entire business has made me wonder why no one has contacted me about providing exciting quotes for movies like "Hollow Man" and "The Patriot." Don't get me wrong; I'm not going to trade my critical reputation and my self-respect for something as mean and petty as mere money. But if I did, it would cost Sony Pictures less than 1.5 million dollars. That's all I'm going to say.

But there's a final, troubling thought that this whole imbroglio has raised. If David Manning of the Ridgefield Press doesn't exist, who's to say that I do? Maybe I'm just a creation of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Or of the Christian Science Monitor. Sure, these things don't particularly trouble you; you're not taking any of this very seriously. But I'm the one who's supposed to meet someone to see "The Aristocrats" tonight, and not existing is going to put a real crimp in the evening.

I'd better get going; a lot of metaphysics to work through, apparently, and I have to take out another loan to afford the ticket prices.

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