By the time it stopped publishing new editions in 2015 after 46 years, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide had swelled to nearly 16,000 entries, each rated from four stars to “bomb” with generous cast listings, knowing bits of film history, and some memorable barbs. The fat volume’s disciples included scholars, nostalgists, trivia buffs, Turner Classic Movies addicts, and this onetime teenage movie fan, who still has a musty copy of a ’90s edition on his boyhood bookshelf. But there was one blurb amid the thousands that everyone seemed to know, whether or not they realized where it originated: a very short review for the little-remembered 1948 musical Isn’t It Romantic? It read simply:
Fans of Maltin’s movie bible or of landmark moments in film criticism may have found the review ringing in their ears this month, as the Rebel Wilson–led romantic comedy Isn’t It Romantic marched toward theaters. (The new movie is unrelated.) Even in the pre-internet days, the pithy review became such a cult favorite that a fan, in the 1980s, submitted it to Guinness World Records, which later informed Maltin it would certify it as the world’s shortest movie review.
Asked by phone this week, several decades later, if people still bring up the review to him, Maltin replied quickly, “Yes. Yes they do.” But he said he’s always enjoyed the appreciation, even if it wasn’t his most searching work. “I remember writing it,” he said. “I guess I was in a smart-alecky mood that day.
“This was in the early days of the guide, when we were, in one fell swoop, practicing reviews of hundreds, indeed, thousands of movies,” he added. “We were trying to find interesting, colorful, precise ways to describe a lot of formulaic movies, and there was an existing book before mine, and we were keenly aware of not even accidentally copying the way they had described those movies. If the plot of the ’40s murder mystery was ‘Man strangles his wife and tries to get away with it,’ how many ways can you say that? And our reviews were much, much shorter in the early guides. Much, much shorter.”
His concise evisceration of Isn’t It Romantic came to him quickly. “When this title of an utterly mediocre and inconsequential—not to say unmemorable—movie came along, it was hard to resist that review,” he said. Did he ever feel bad that his review had become more famous than the film itself—maybe, say, for the people involved in the production? “I daresay they may not have disagreed,” he said. “This is at Paramount in the days it was all Paramount contract players, and so they had no say as to whether they liked or disliked the material.”
Maltin, who still reviews movies in Los Angeles and now hosts the podcast Maltin on Movies, had not seen the new Isn’t It Romantic and could not confirm whether it also warranted a one-word takedown. (He’s heard good things.) But he noted that, as Movie Guide fans know, there was plenty more where that came from. He read one favorite blurb aloud on the phone, written by Mike Clark, a longtime critic, about the 1966 sci-fi horror flick The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (rating: bomb):
1) Look at the title. 2) Examine the cast. 3) Be aware that the plot involves omnivorous trees. 4) Don’t say you weren’t warned.