Highlights from the week in criticism.
Sept. 24 1998 3:30 AM




TheStarr Report (Public Affairs, Prima Publishing, Pocket Books, the Internet). Starr's "bodice-ripper" (Doreen Carvajal, the New York Times) gets an A- from Entertainment Weekly and holds the No. 1 spot on Amazon.com's paperback nonfiction best seller list. Critics everywhere treat the legal document as if it were a literary creation but disagree on which genre it falls into. Some find it squarely in the tradition of "the nineteenth-century novel of adultery" (James Wood, the New Republic). Others call it a combination of "low-grade erotica," "bedroom farce," "detective pulp," and "courtroom drama" (L.S. Klepp, Entertainment Weekly). Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt calls the report a "nonfiction novel" in the New York Times and finds its closest literary antecedent in the writings of medieval inquisitors, in particular Kramer and Sprengerr's Malleus Maleficarum. Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker that Americans overwhelmingly side with Clinton because "a scapegrace hero is always more appealing than a moralizing narrator." (Read the Starr report here as a Web document or here as a Microsoft Word document.)


Bag of Bones, by Stephen King (Scribner). King's foray into the realm of more literary fiction is met with so-so reviews. He writes compellingly about the grief of main character Mike Noonan--a successful lowbrow writer who experiences crippling writer's block after the death of his wife--and has a "real genius ... for the everyday" (Daniel Mendelson, the New York Review of Books). The problem is that the mixing of this traditional story with King's trademark bone-chilling horror results in a novel that straddles the two genres somewhat awkwardly. (Listen to this Terry Gross interview with King.)

Model Behavior, by Jay McInerney (Random House). McInerney's latest rehash of Manhattan fast living is Bright Lights, Big City all over again: Smart young man works at a magazine, dates a model, runs with a debauched crowd, looks for meaning. Critics say the novel "wears a sort of KICKME sign" (Walter Kirn, New York) in its baldfaced self-plagiarism and, worse, "it's never clear if we are meant to ridicule, pity, or envy" the characters (A.O. Scott, the New York Times Book Review). Ken Tucker dissents in the Baltimore Sun, calling the book "one of [McInerney's] most clever, funny, and moving ... a Great Gatsby for the end of the century." (Read an excerpt from the book.)


Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore (Knopf). The latest collection of witty stories by Moore (Self-Help, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?) is hailed as "older, wiser, and less frivolous" (Erika Milvy, the San Francisco Chronicle) than her previous work. Moore is known for her wordplay, wry humor, and smart, bitter female protagonists; this collection is said to show a "deepening emotional chiaroscuro" (Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times)--Moore's most warm and powerful to date. (Read the first chapter.)



Rush Hour (New Line Cinema). Martial arts maestro Jackie Chan and rising-star comic Chris Tucker join up in a fun but overly formulaic action comedy. The two follow the clichéd cop-buddy film trajectory (initial distrust gives way to bonding) and, along the way, treat the audience to some great action scenes and some not so great ethnic stereotypes. Tucker's hyperactive antics make the film almost a "scamp minstrel show" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly), while Chan is the butt of infantile Chinese-food-related jokes. Despite these handicaps, Chan's Buster Keaton-style physical comedy and Tucker's fast-talking humor are said to be "raucously entertaining" (Joe Leydon, Daily Variety). (Read David Edelstein's review in Slate. Watch clips of the fight scenes here.)

Permanent Midnight (Artisan Entertainment). The critics are split: Some find Ben Stiller's performance as a heroin-addicted TV writer (based on Jerry Stahl's memoir of the same title) ferociously compelling, while others find it hollow. Those in favor call the film "scorchingly funny" (Michael O'Sullivan, the Washington Post) and Stiller's performance "rivetingly caustic" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times). Those against complain that the film is "a shallow tale told by an idiot" (Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal) and that Stiller's junkie character is too thoroughly unappealing for the audience to ever root for him. (Find out more about Stiller here.)


A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (October Films). Critics laud Merchant-Ivory's exit from the 19th century in this adaptation of a semiautobiographical novel by Kaylie Jones (daughter of novelist James Jones). The film is an understated but moving depiction of the day to day existence of an intelligent young woman growing up in France and later America and is praised as having "captured something true about families and friendship" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). Kris Kristofferson's performance as the novelist-father is called the best of his career. Detractors say the film lacks any real sense of narrative continuity and feels like "bits and pieces of half a dozen coming-of-age films" (Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly).

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns



Movie--One True Thing;

Movie--Simon Birch;

Movie--Touch of Evil;

Book--Anne Frank by Melissa Müller;


Music--Mechanical Animals, by Marilyn Manson;

Music--Teatro, by Willie Nelson.

Movie--Without Limits;

Movie--Knock Off;

Movie--Next Stop Wonderland;

Death--Akira Kurosawa;

Book--The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester;

Book--At Home in the World, by Joyce Maynard.


Movie--Why Do Fools Fall in Love;


Book--The Farming of Bones, by Edwidge Danticat;

Music--The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, by Lauryn Hill.

Movie--Dance With Me;

Movie--Your Friends & Neighbors;

Movie--Unmade Beds;

Television--TheRatPack (HBO);

Book--The First Eagle, by Tony Hillerman;

Book--Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son, by Christopher Dickey;

Book--KaaterskillFalls, by Allegra Goodman.

--Eliza Truitt