New York In person, Roger Ebert seems as pearly and placid as a movie screen before the show.
His new partner, Richard Roeper, bristles with lean eagerness.
That contrast, all by itself, suggests the chemistry developing between the co-hosts of "Ebert & Roeper and the Movies," the latest version of the long-running film-criticism series best described by Ebert himself: "five new movies, two people telling you what they really feel about them."
For nearly a quarter-century, Chicago Sun-Times movie reviewer Ebert was teamed with rival film critic Gene Siskel.
Then, in early 1999, Siskel died of cancer.
Ebert pressed on with a number of guest critics until last summer, when Roeper, 41, was tapped to permanently join the 58-year-old veteran in the show's dream-palace balcony.
Now Roeper, a Sun-Times columnist since 1987, gets to take his first whack at a pair of the series' annual rites: identifying the 10 best movies of the year (for the segment airing this weekend) and the worst (for a later program).
The five best films on which they concur are, in no particular order: "Wonder Boys," "You Can Count on Me," "Traffic," "Almost Famous" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Perhaps the fact that they share some titles yet heartily dispute the others suggests the freewheeling nature of their cinema appraisals.
From a recent show:
"We didn't like this movie for different reasons," said Roeper, summing up "Proof of Life."
"Ah, c'mon now, Richard," said Ebert, lodging a protest to Roeper's slam of "Vertical Limit."
"Oh, I really agree with you," said Ebert to Roeper, who praised "Pollock."
Explained Roeper, "I don't look at an obviously bad movie and think, 'Well, maybe I'll find a reason to like it just so we can fight about it on TV.' And we don't play roles, like: He's the Pulitzer-Prize-winning movie critic and I'm the general, populist guy.
"HE liked 'Scary Movie.' I didn't!"
"Me," Ebert fired back, "and 57 million dollars' worth of ticket buyers."
"Well, you're ALL easily amused," said Roeper.
"But sometimes the disagreement isn't between the two people on the show," Ebert pointed out. "It's between the two people on the show and the public."
Item: Both of them frowned on the Jim Carrey smash "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas."
During all their years together, Siskel and Ebert agreed more than two-thirds of the time, Ebert said. Far more of their clashes, he added, were off-screen.
Siskel may be out of sight but he is never out of mind in any discussion of "Ebert & Roeper and the Movies." After all, it was he and Ebert, two Chicago newspaper movie critics, who in 1975 were paired by PBS for "Sneak Previews."
If the world's highest-paid consultants had done the casting, they couldn't have found a more distinctive-looking twosome: the skinny-fat combo of Siskel-and-Ebert became the updated synonym for Mutt-and-Jeff.
But the real magic of the marriage revealed itself only when they ditched their 3-by-5 cue cards. "The moment we started speaking spontaneously," said Ebert, "the show started to work."
Like his predecessor, Roeper strikes a visual counterpoint to Ebert he is younger, lankier and dark-haired.
"But appearance wasn't a factor this time, either," said Ebert, noting that his first guest co-host (and potential Siskel successor) was Washington Post critic Tom Shales, "who looks a lot like me."
"He (Roeper) was an obvious candidate. But he also works for the Sun-Times. Then my wife, Chaz, said, 'Well, so what? You ought to have him on and see how he works out."'
Ebert did. "It was kind of obvious, right from the start, that it was working."