Myron Boor chuckled as he watched "National Lampoon's Vacation," the 1983 John Hughes comedy, on videotape.
Just for kicks, he picked up Mick Martin and Marsha Porter's "Video Movie Guide" the next time he was browsing in the Town Crier, an Emporia, Kan., bookstore, to see what the critics thought. "Martin and Porter described the film as 'one of the unfunniest comedies every made,' " recalls Boor, his voice still filled with disbelief. He recites the rest of the review: " 'Vacation' contains one laugh, count em, one.' They gave it a zero."
Boor, a psychologist on the faculty at Emporia State University, was stunned. "Am I that far off base with my humor?" he worried.
Quickly, he thumbed through Leonard Maltin's "TV Movies and Video Guide." " He gave it three out of four stars," Boor recalls, triumph in his voice. "Maltin said it was an enjoyable lightweight comedy. (He said) there are a surprising number of genuine laughs."
Finding a critic who shared his taste banished Boor's doubts about his own sense of humor. But it didn't quell his curiosity.
Since the "Vacation" incident, Boor has been trying to answer questions of prime interest to the popcorn-chomping public:
* Do most well-known critics agree with each other or disagree?
* If you read one review, can you pretty much bet the other major critics will heap the same praise or hurl the same tomatoes?
* What are the odds that a critic will agree with a fan's movie review?
* Do critics deserve their curmudgeonly reputation?
Boor picked six critics or critic-teams who have published video reference books: Martin and Porter, Leonard Maltin ("Leonard Maltin's TV Movies and Video Guide"), Steven H. Scheuer ("Movies on TV and Videocassette"), Roger Ebert ("Roger Ebert's Movie Home Companion"), TV Guide and the Editors of Consumer Guide and Jay A. Brown ("Rating the Movies for Home Video, TV and Cable.")
He painstakingly compared their reviews of 568 movies, adjusting for minor variations in individual rating systems, since some reviewers, for instance, award stars in half-point gradations and other in one-point increments.
"I looked at the number of stars they had assigned and ran a statistical correlation," Boor says.
The envelope, please?
According to Boor's research, just published in the journal Psychological Reports, all six critics agreed wholeheartedly in their reviews of 41% (235) of the movies, rating them in the same categories. At least five critics agreed for 66% of the movies and at least four agreed for nearly 92%.
For 8% of the films, though, the critics showed little consensus, says Boor.
What does it all mean? "There is substantial agreement among movie critics," says Boor. "But there is a noticeable amount of diversity, too--enough to provide interesting variation in professional opinion."
Viewers overestimate the amount of agreement among movie critics, Boor suspects. "One of the more startling observations is that almost one-fifth of the movies have been rated as good or excellent by one of the critics and as poor by another.
"If we see a movie and don't like it and then a critic says it is a good movie, we shouldn't necessarily feel badly," Borr says. "There is a fair chance that some other critics will agree with us."
Based on the research, Boor offers this advice to moviegoers in search of the most for their money:
* Read more than one critic's evaluation.
* Look to see whether elements important to the critic are also important to you. "Some critics might tend to focus more on the quality of the acting. Others might stress the quality of the plot or story."
Of one other fact he's sure. Movie critics do change their mind. In a later edition of the Martin and Porter guide, Boor says, "Vacation" was upgraded from a rock bottom zero to three stars.