A Tribute to Roger Ebert From the Screenwriter of the Movie He Hated, Hated, Hated

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by Matt Singer
April 10, 2013 12:00 PM
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"North."

Alan Zweibel won three Emmys as a writer for the original cast of "Saturday Night Live" and a fourth as the writer of "The Paul Simon Special" in 1978 (he was also nominated as an "SNL" writer that year as well, meaning he either defeated himself or lost to himself, depending on your point-of-view). He worked on the cult favorite "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and co-wrote the movie version of "Dragnet" with Dan Aykroyd. He's had an fine career with some major achievements.

But nobody's perfect. Amongst those major achievements rests a major stink bomb: "North," the infamous 1994 flop starring a young Elijah Wood as a boy who hates his parents so thoroughly that he sues them in court and then travels the country auditioning new mothers and fathers. Then as now, "North" was notorious for the excoriating review it received from the late critic Roger Ebert, in which he wrote:

"I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.

I hold it as an item of faith that Rob Reiner is a gifted filmmaker; among his credits are 'This Is Spinal Tap,' 'The Sure Thing,' 'The Princess Bride,' 'Stand By Me,' 'When Harry Met Sally...,' and 'Misery.' I list those titles as an incantation against this one."

'North' is a bad film -- one of the worst movies ever made. But it is not by a bad filmmaker, and must represent some sort of lapse from which Reiner will recover -- possibly sooner than I will."

Ebert goes out of his way to praise Reiner as a filmmaker even as he demolishes his movie, insisting that he is a "gifted" director who will "recover" from the "lapse" in judgment that produced "North." He does not, however, go out of his way to say anything good about Alan Zweibel, who wrote the novel the film was based on, and also helped adapt it to the screen. 

The review quickly became legendary -- and the "hated hated hated hated hated" line became the title of Ebert's first collection of reviews for movies he disliked (disliked disliked). Many of the obituaries for Ebert in the last week have mentioned the "North" review and that great line. It's easily one of the most well-known and widely read things he ever wrote.

Now, here is one more tribute to Ebert that mentions "North" -- Alan Zweibel's in The New Yorker. Whether "North" is a masterpiece or a piece of garbage (I'm certainly not a fan), you could hardly blame its creators for holding a grudge against anyone who wrote a review as negative as "I hated hated hated hated hated this movie" -- much less someone like Ebert, who wrote such a negative review and had the power to influence readers and viewers around the country and the world. Nonetheless, Zweibel's remembrance is a lovely one: honest, a little hurt, but very generous. 

Near the end of the piece, Zweibel reveals an encounter with Ebert in a Chicago restaurant a dozen years after "North" had been released, after the sting of "hated hated hated hated hated" had faded but not vanished. Spotting him at lunch, Zweibel followed Ebert to the restroom and introduced himself. There was an awkward moment of silence, and then Zweibel spoke:

"'And I just have to tell you, Roger, that that sweater you’re wearing? I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate that sweater.'

One last beat of silence.

Then I smiled. And then he smiled.

Then I started laughing.

And then he started laughing.

And then we shook hands.

Rest in peace, Roger."

That's a classy gesture and a funny farewell from subject to critic. I don't know about you, but I suddenly hate hate hate hate hate "North" a little bit less. I only hate it four hates now.

Read more of "Roger and Me" and Ebert's original review of "North." Here is Siskel and Ebert on "North:"

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