Last week, Roger Ebert posted a journal entry discussing his own use of the four-star rating system and contrasted it with the San Francisco Chronicle's "Little Man." The post makes for interesting reading. Go read it and come back...
Did you notice the something interesting about Ebert's methodology? Here's the quote, "I consider 2.5 stars to be thumbs down; they consider 62.5 to be favorable." For Ebert 2.5 Stars is "thumbs down." I find this quite odd, and you should too for a few reasons. First, it is lunacy to use a system that provides a median value and have anything at or above that median value be "thumbs down." Second, it is counter-intuitive to American audiences, particularly those in the GPA obsessed era, to think of a 2.5 (mid-point between a C+ at 2.3 and a B- at 2.7) as a failing grade. Third, Ebert admits that he once "considered 2.5 stars to be a perfectly acceptable rating for a film I rather liked in certain aspects." This is an admission that demonstrates an inconsistency in his rating system. Some might argue growth, but I'd argue inconsistency since one reading his older reviews might misinterpret the meaning if they are familiar with his current use of 2.5 stars. The internets, and Lexis/Nexis, allow us to do such things without buying books collecting his reviews -- books which can be "retconned" easily.
For my part, I can't understand why any critic using the 4 point system wouldn't automatically convert any such ratings into a grade point scale. I know I do it -- almost subconsciously. A four star rating is an A, a 3 star is a B, 2 stars C, 1 star D, and no stars is an F. I'll avoid most D movies, but if there's no grade inflation a C should be "average."
And essentially this gets to the core of what I'm trying to say, which is to say that Ebert -- as he alludes in the title to his entry -- does indeed rate too highly. He's a grade-inflator. If he likes a movie, it's automatically a B or better. From a less skilled critic, I would blame it on a lack of subtlety of thought or to an exaggeration of the critic's Primal Screen. In this case, I'll write it off as another case of grade inflation...something we certainly need less of in our teachers, and apparently our reviewers.
If you haven't guessed, this is why I use a 5 point scale. That way a 2.5 might be a film that has some small elements I enjoy, but it is still a film that shouldn't be recommended. But then MetaCritic, Rotten Tomatoes, and I get into a disagreement. I think that a median rated film should be viewed as a median film, neither good nor bad. I don't like binary systems. Certainly, there are some films I would recommend to everyone and there are some films I would warn everyone to avoid. But there are also some films that I would recommend for some people and not others and that doesn't necessarily mean they are bad films, just that they aren't universal.