Hollywood & Fine’s Marshall Fine says he’s “totally stumped” about why Bill Maher would devote a half-hour last weekend to an interview with Ron Howard. Perhaps Maher sees the director of the already controversial Angels and Demons as a fellow iconoclast? Invalid, says Fine, since Howard “just happens to be directing a movie that caused controversy — not because he believed in its ideas but because it’s based on a best-seller and pretty much guaranteed to make big dough.

“So why would Maher kiss Ron Howard’s ass, giving him the one-on-one treatment as though he were a major filmmaker? What — Joel Schumacher wasn’t available? Is Richard Donner dead? God knows there’s a long list of hacks of similar mediocrity.

“I hate to be harsh about Howard. I’ve interviewed him a number of times over the years (beginning with Cocoon) and he’s always been gracious, articulate and friendly.

But is he a major filmmaker deserving of the kind of attention [that Maher provided]? That’s the kind of hagiography I expect from Turner Classics (which ran a Richard Schickel-produced career retrospective of Howard last year.)

“Howard is a highly competent middle-brow movie director. Nothing wrong with that. Given a film as rousing and over-the-plate as, say, Apollo 13, Howard can hit it out of the park. (I still believe he deserved the Oscar for that film far more than Mel Gibson’s overlong, overrated Braveheart). Even last year’s Frost/Nixon showed that Howard had a mastery over a certain kind of material and an ability to work with actors that can’t be denied.

“Give him a sweet-natured comedy – Splash, Parenthood – and he’s all over it. On the other side of the ledger [are] Willow, The Paper, Edtv and – can I even type this without gagging? – How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

“For that matter, there’s A Beautiful Mind, which gave mental illness a heroic Hollywood gloss – and The DaVinci Code itself, as lumbering a thriller as you’re likely to find. Even Tom Hanks looked bored during that one.

“Perhaps some critic in the distant future will look back and crown Howard the king of some school of filmmaking that has yet to be recognized or named. It will be a stretch, even then.

But for the moment, he’s simply a successful commercial director. No visionary, no ground-breaker, no voice-of-a-generation.”