The film critics at the New York Times are involved in a puzzling game of musical chairs.
Former Daily News film reviewer David Kehr, shut out of the competition for the job of chief film critic last September, is back in the good graces of the paper’s editorial staff.
Once rumored to be a front-runner for Janet Maslin’s job — perhaps the most coveted such post in the country — Kehr lost out to Elvis Mitchell and A.O. Scott. In an unorthodox arrangement, the two new hires share chief film critic duties with Stephen Holden, previously a long-standing culture desk writer.
But Kehr, a member of the National Society of Film Critics who also served as film critic of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Reader for more than a decade, materialized in the Times on March 24 with a review of “Buddy Boy.”
He reappeared March 31, sounding off on Universal’s “The Skulls,” which opened over the weekend on 2,411 screens. The paper that day featured three reviews by Holden, one by Mitchell, and nothing from Scott, whose last two reviews for the paper were of film fest selections.
It is rare for the Times to use freelancers as reviewers, with second-tier critics Lawrence Van Gelder and Anita Gates typically backing up the troika at the top. But Times culture editor John Darnton points out that Kehr was already under contract to write the “At the Movies” column every other week.
“All along when we signed him, we knew he was there to do reviews on an as-needed-basis,” Darnton said. “It’s not that we reverted to him.”
But as the Times shuffles its assignments among a large review staff, industry insiders are left to wonder if the paper is unhappy with its new hires, and whether they’ll be trusted to cover the tent-pole releases skedded for later this spring. As one source put it, “We are not in a killer film season right now, such as Labor Day, Christmas or Memorial weekend.”
Scott feels the distribution of films has been equal. “I reviewed ‘Erin Brockovich’ and Holden reviewed ‘High Fidelity,’ ” he said.
But considering that the job shared by Scott, Mitchell and Holden now pays less than half of what some columnists earn at other metropolitan dailies, one may suspect that the three critics remain at the mercy of the sometimes inscrutable whims of Times editors.
Will the paper keep readers guessing by distributing its major assignments like poker chips?