Highlights from the week in criticism.
Dec. 31 1998 3:30 AM




Patch Adams(Universal Pictures). Critics pan this inspirational "based on a true story" dramedy about a doctor who cures with laughter. (Ignoring the bad reviews, moviegoers gave the film a record-breaking Christmas weekend box office haul.) As played by Robin Williams, Patch Adams is first an "insufferable, sermonizing medical student" (Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal) and later an in-your-face clown-doctor with a bedpan on his head and squeaky balloon animals in his hands. The film is sappy and grating: Even the easy to please Gene Siskel calls it "utterly unctuous" and asks, "Who would want Mork at their bedside?" (Chicago Tribune). (Visit the official site.)

The Faculty (Miramax Films). Teen horror screenwriting master Kevin Williamson does it again in this "rip-snorting hunk of giddy, self-aware genre trash" (Dennis Harvey, Daily Variety). The Breakfast Club meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers as six misfit high-schoolers try to save the world from their alien-inhabited teachers. Critics credit the teen actors (Elijah Wood and some unknowns) and the adult faculty (Famke Janssen, Bebe Neuwirth, and others) with solid performances. It's a film that "ably gives the audience what it wants: hope, revenge, and gross-out jokes" (Dave Kehr, New YorkDaily News). (Check out preliminary models of the aliens at this site.)

Stepmom (Sony Pictures Entertainment). Julia Roberts plays the nightmare stepmom (i.e., beautiful, successful, sweet) to überhousewife Susan Sarandon's kids. Their rivalry dissolves, of course, when Sarandon is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Critics call this tear-jerker manipulative and trite, deriding its mandatory sing-along-to-Motown-hits female bonding scene, stiff-upper-lipping by Sarandon, etc. Female reviewers are kinder than males, and the New York Times' Janet Maslin writes that Roberts and Sarandon "make the film a lot more watchable than it has any right to be." (Watch an interview with the two stars here.)

Mighty Joe Young (Buena Vista Pictures). The critics deem this "shaky remake of a hoary King Kong knockoff" (Morgenstern) mildly amusing. The story: Big ape has special relationship (which USA Today's Mike Clark calls "vaguely unseemly") with beautiful girl, bad guys want to poach big ape, big ape gets put in zoo/nature preserve, goes on rampage, and saves little kiddies from a burning Ferris wheel. Charlize Theron (the object of the ape's affections) is a stunner, and the giant gorilla is stunningly realistic, but critics say the rest of the movie is too predictable to be anything more than strictly OK. (Check out the movie poster from the 1949 original.)



Hundred Dollar Holiday, by Bill McKibben (Simon & Schuster). Although McKibben's earlier books (mostly on the ways he has reduced his environmental impact on the earth) were slammed as having "the homiletic tone of a Sunday school sermon" (New York Timesman Richard Bernstein on Hope, Human and Wild), this one strikes a positive chord with most reviewers. They praise his proposal that we reduce the commerciality of the holiday season, and only a few mention that Hundred Dollar Holiday recycles ideas from the 10-year-old voluntary simplicity movement. New York's Walter Kirn dissents from the pack, complaining of McKibben's books in general--"his combination of arrogance and sincerity, narcissism and asceticism, is riveting and infuriating at once"--and of this book in specific--"The thesis is ancient and hard to argue with, though something in McKibben's pious manner may make one want to try." (Read Kirn's review here.)

The Vintner's Luck, by Elizabeth Knox (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Mixed reviews greet this New Zealand author's first novel published in the United States. This story of a long and stormy love affair between a fallen angel and a 19th century French vintner is described alternately as having "a ferocious display of inventive power" (Kirkus Reviews) and as having "a disconcerting hollowness" (Richard Eder, the Los Angeles Times). The critics agree on the flashes of brilliance in her writing; the disagreement is over how consistently Knox puts it all together. (Read more about the book at Amazon.com.)

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns


  • Movie--The Prince of Egypt;
  • Movie--You've Got Mail;
  • Movie--The General;
  • Book--Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, with Annette Lawrence Drew;
  • Book--Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, by Seamus Heaney;
  • Book--The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse, The Early Years, 1869-1908, by Hilary Spurling.

  • Movie--Shakespeare in Love;
  • Movie--Star Trek: Insurrection;
  • Movie--Rushmore;
  • Movie--A Simple Plan;
  • Movie--Jack Frost;
  • Television--The Tempest (NBC);
  • Theater--The Blue Room, by David Hare (Cort Theatre, New York City).

  • Movie--Psycho;
  • Movie--Central Station;
  • Movie--Hard Core Logo;
  • Movie--Little Voice;
  • Book--Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan;
  • Art--"Edo: Art in Japan 1615-1868" (National Gallery of Art, Washington);
  • Theater--Electra, by Sophocles (Ethel Barrymore Theater, New York City).

  • Movie--Babe: Pig in the City;
  • Movie--Home Fries;
  • Movie--Jerry Springer: Ringmaster;
  • Movie--Very Bad Things;
  • Theater--On the Town;
  • Book--The Rum Diary: The Long Lost Novel, by Hunter S. Thompson.