The People vs. Larry Flynt (Columbia). Can Hustler founder Larry Flynt really be considered an icon of Yankee ingenuity, a martyr to the cause of free speech? Director Milos Forman has based his biopic on this unlikely premise, and critics find themselves surprisingly willing to go along. "Brave, spectacularly entertaining, and unexpectedly stirring," says Newsweek's David Ansen. Ansen singles out Woody Harrelson's "robust" performance in the title role; the New York Observer's Rex Reed singles out Courtney Love, who plays the pornographer's wife. "Watching Ms. Love writhe around in a moaning ecstasy of heroin," Reed says, "you know it's the kind of stuff that wins awards." (The New York Film Critics' Circle named her best supporting actress last week.) One point of critical disagreement is the movie's politics. New York's David Denby thinks that "liberal sanctimoniousness begins to overwhelm this clever screenplay," while The New York Times' Frank Rich is happy that the film "truly offers something to offend everyone"--especially so-called "cultural guardians" such as Bill Bennett and Joe Lieberman. (The movie's distributors are playing it safer than its director did; for the racy poster being used to promote the movie overseas--Harrelson as Flynt hanging, crucified, inside a woman's crotch--they've substituted a somber picture of Harrelson as Flynt with a flag sealing his mouth. For extra credibility, they're reprinting Rich's column as an ad.) The movie opens Dec. 27. The official site for the film is a fake magazine entitled Free Speech?
The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, edited by R.W. Burchfield (Oxford University Press). Amateur lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler wrote his classic Modern English Usage in 1926, and the original volume is still revered as "authoritative, unafraid to make decisions" (William Safire, the New York Times). Critics are less happy about the new edition, updated by professional lexicographer Robert W. Burchfield, the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. There's a certain grimness to Burchfield's revisions, complains John Updike in The New Yorker. The editor "has come not to praise but to bury his fabled predecessor." Other critics agree: The new Fowler's is no fun. The New York Observer's David Michaelis says the book "has the feel of a great restaurant after the founding chef has moved on." And fellow lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower praises Burchfield in the Atlantic Monthly for softening Fowler's often irrational intolerance of changes in the language, but concludes, "The ardent Fowler enthusiast will most likely be disappointed."
A Reporter's Life, by Walter Cronkite (Knopf). Critics respond to Cronkite's meandering memoir with everything from affable boredom (Entertainment Weekly's Gene Lyons) to downright disgust (the Wall Street Journal's Joe Queenan). Cronkite recounts his slow, steady transformation from a small-town reporter into the most trusted man in America, stopping every so often to deliver jeremiads on the state of television journalism and the failings of his former bosses at CBS. In the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley notes that Cronkite's ordinary-guy voice tends to give way to something "pontifical, self-congratulatory, patronizingly avuncular." The Journal's Queenan declares the book "a daring attempt to cram every morsel of received wisdom, distilled flapdoodle and tired old blather into a single, handy volume." (Random House plugs the book at its Web site.)
Whistle Down the Wind (National Theatre, Washington, D.C.). Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest overblown spectacle premiered in Washington last week, and reviews suggest it will be a challenge to whip it into shape before its Broadway debut five months from now. "It needs work," writes Dan Hulbert in the Atlanta Constitution. It's a "turgid thing" and a "bloated jumble," writes Nelson Presley in the Washington Times. Terry Byrne's review for the Boston Herald is headlined "Whistle Needs Tuning." Webber's score wins some praise ("pleasing": Variety's Paul Harris), but reviewers think it unlikely that the musical's subject matter--it's about a group of children in rural Louisiana who befriend an escaped murder suspect they think is Jesus Christ--will fly in New York. The book, by Patricia Knop (who regularly collaborates with her husband, soft-core pornographer Zalman King), is "dull" and "stuttering," according to Washington Post theater critic Lloyd Rose; Webber's vision of the small-town South, Rose adds, "has as much cultural reality as a street in Disneyland." In the lone positive review, the London Times' Benedict Nightingale calls the show "refreshingly unfussy."
Marvin's Room (Miramax). This movie is mainly a triumph of casting. Stars Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, and Leonardo DiCaprio--"three terrifically gifted performers" (Variety)--rescue an otherwise maudlin adaptation of the late Scott McPherson's play about a leukemia-stricken spinster (Keaton) and her long-absent sister (Streep) who must donate her bone-marrow. The New York Observer's Andrew Sarris says that first-time film director Jerry Zaks and his cast "are to be congratulated for providing enough bite and humor to the proceedings to keep the whole production from turgidly sinking into the sea of despond." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum agrees that "for the performances of Keaton, Streep and [Leonardo] DiCaprio, it's worth putting up with some free-floating sentimentality." People's Leah Rozen, however, saw little more in the movie than a "slight, lachrymose domestic drama." Marvin's Room opens Dec. 18. (You can download videos and stills at Miramax's site.)
Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). Margaret Atwood's historical novel--based on a lurid 1843 double homicide featuring a sort of Canadian Lizzie Borden--was nominated for the Booker Prize in England and is becoming just as big a critical hit here. Atwood's "richly diverting detail" (the Los Angeles Times' Richard Eder) and "brilliant sense of place" (the New York Review of Books' Hilary Mantel) make her re-creation of 19th-century Canada convincing. "Atwood has saturated herself in the social and intellectual currents of Canada a century and a half ago," says Time's John Skow. The New York Times' Christopher Lehman-Haupt praises her narrative style, a melange of first-person confession, gossip, and tabloid reports, calling it "part epistolary, part narrative, and altogether compelling." (An excerpt and an audio sample of Alias Grace are available at Doubleday's site.)
|--Compiled by David Kurnick.|
Illustrations by Mark Alan Stamaty