Ebert & Roeper Celebrity Guest Hosts: A Canon

This week marks the 10th anniversary of John “Cougar” Mellencamp’s guest appearance on Ebert & Roeper. If this doesn’t make you misty-eyed, there’s no way we can relate.

In 2006, while Roger Ebert was hospitalized for the cancer surgery and subsequent burst artery that would claim his jaw, his show Ebert & Roeper continued with a rotating lineup of guest critics until he could return. Alas, Ebert would never regain his ability to speak, so for the remaining two years of the Roeper era, film journalists (A.O. Scott, Michael Phillips, that smug Robert Wilonsky guy whose byline kept showing up in the Village Voice) alternated with a motley assortment of celebrities with varying levels of critical insight. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and recall a few of the celebs who visited the balcony and matched wits with the mighty Roeper.

Please note that very few of these reviews are online, and I’m relying almost entirely on fuzzy, decade-old memories.

Jay Leno

Ebert and Roeper were regular guests on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, where the movie-related chatter felt comfortable and unforced. Leno became the first celebrity guest of the post-Ebert era, and when they’re all tallied up, he falls squarely in the middle. He was enthusiastic about Talladega Nights and Little Miss Sunshine (“It’s a movie where they said, ‘Okay, we’ve got no money, so let’s just write good jokes!'”), and gave thumbs-down only to Michael Mann’s Miami Vice (it diverged too far from the TV show, he argued). I give him points for his bemused thumbs-up for Lee Daniels’ Shadowboxer (“It was odd“) in the face on Roeper’s strong opposition.

Kevin Smith

In his first appearance, the jorts-wearing auteur acquitted himself admirably, delivering punchy, Roeper-esque reviews and displaying respectable, Roeper-esque taste. He gave a polite thumbs-up appraisal of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre (“It’s a hard movie not to like”) and reluctant thumbs-down to Woody Allen’s Scoop (“It’s just not very funny […] But he’s still a god”), and his hyperbole for the Ryan Gosling heroin-addiction indie Half Nelson (“The best movie I’ve seen in a decade!”) was understandable for a film-criticism novice. He also got into some playful sparring with Roeper regarding his negative reviews for earlier Smith films, notably Jersey Girl (though Roeper countered with his thumbs-up verdict for the then-current Clerks II). Unfortunately, Smith’s later appearances offered diminishing returns: he would go on to give thumbs-up to dodgy titles like the Costner/Kutcher vehicle The Guardian (“It’s the kind of movie where you turn your brain off and…”), and overreached when he compared Black Snake Moan to William Faulkner.

One review from the Smith episodes available online is his positive take on the original Step Up, in which he speculates, “I’m gonna take all manner of crap for liking it.” Roeper slams the film and its star, a young Channing Tatum (“I just think the guy’s actually a terrible actor”), and warns Smith, “You’re going to be on the ads along with Earn Dittman of Wireless Magazine.” Smith jokes, “I think in 10 years you’re going to come around to my way of thinking.” Ten years later, Channing Tatum looms large over our lives, while the Step Up saga has been reclaimed as a vulgar auteurist cause celebre.

Sadly, Smith and Roeper fell out in 2010 after Roeper’s  negative review of Cop Out.

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Mario Van Peebles

Van Peebles–most recently seen directing a DTV Nicolas-Cage-on-a-submarine movie–was not far from the critical success of his 2004 film Baadasssss! when he appeared alongside Roeper. My memory is that he was entirely competent, and concurred with Roeper’s guarded praise of Borat.

Harold Ramis

Harold Ramis reviewed the Christopher Guest comedy For Your Consideration, and warned that while he was worried about reviewing a film where he was friendly with most of the major participants, he was happy to report that he laughed throughout. I think it was a mistake to schedule Ramis for this week, but he gets a pass because his praise seemed genuine.

Aisha Tyler

Roeper has called the actress/comedian/talk-show host/multihyphenate “one of my favorite humans in the galaxy,” and of all the guests hosts, she and Roeper probably had the easiest chemistry. I liked her because of her oft-alluded-to enthusiasm for martial arts movies. Though she gave a marginal thumbs-down to the Tony Jaa vehicle The Protector, she expressed admiration for Jaa, and chided Roeper for his negative review of the earlier Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior.

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Fred Willard

In his enthusiastic review of the Jet Li historical kung-fu film Fearless, the Best in Show star raved, “You get so swept up in the culture and the atmosphere… y’know, after we saw this movie, my wife and I went out for Chinese food!” Of the James Franco World War I yarn Flyboys, he said that it was the kind of old-fashioned entertainment where the kids would enjoy the aerial dogfights while the girls would enjoy the love story and their little brothers would be off getting popcorn during the kissing scenes. As I recall, the only film he gave thumbs-down was Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, of which he said, “It was really off-the-wall… but I kinda wish it had been a little more on-the-wall.”

John “Cougar” Mellencamp

The most notorious of the guests, Mellencamp gave thumbs-up to all the movies on the show, with mumbled, monosyllabic insights such as that Vacancy was “kind of Hitchockian” and “not as bad as you’re saying.” Despite its hall-of-fame trainwreck quality, I can’t find any trace of this episode on YouTube–a cultural tragedy on par with the suppression of The Day the Clown Cried.

Despite Mellencamp’s unique unfitness for the job, he was reportedly a fan of the show, and it was his team that approached Ebert & Roeper HQ. In a 2012 interview, Roeper recalled:

He didn’t seem to have seen a lot of movies. He saw the movies we talked about. The guy spent the last twenty years on the road and recording and writing music, not going to a ton of movies, so I think maybe he had seen the show more than he had seen movies. There was one moment on the show, and I think they probably cut it out from the final version, but we were reviewing a movie called In the Land of Women, and he said something like, ‘I really like that one gal. It looks like she’s got a future in movies.’ And I said, ‘You mean Meg Ryan?’ And he goes, ‘Yea, yea, that’s her name.’ The bizarre thing now is he’s dating her! I guess he knows who she is now.

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