Highlights from the week in criticism.
Dec. 17 1998 3:30 AM




Shakespeare in Love (Miramax Films). It's the critics who are in love: Gwyneth Paltrow is gorgeous, Joseph Fiennes is dashing, and the movie is "smart and giddily entertaining" (David Ansen, Newsweek). Fiennes' young Will Shakespeare has an affair with Paltrow's character that becomes the basis for Romeo and Juliet. Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman's screenplay is full of amusing references to Shakespeare plays, but is not so erudite that it won't please crowds, and the dialogue "percolates with bubbly finesse" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). The New Yorker's David Denby puts a slight damper on the general festivities: He says the film starts out muddled, though it livens up by the end. (Check out stills from the film on this page, and read David Edelstein's pan in Slate.)

Star Trek: Insurrection (Paramount Pictures). Critics say the ninth installment in the Star Trek franchise unfolds like a two hour episode of the TV series--"as warm and cozy as a pair of tribble fur-lined Spock ears on a cold winter's night" (Michael O'Sullivan, the Washington Post). The action takes place on a planet whose fountain of youth properties make it the envy of malicious neighbors. Critics say insiders will laugh at the inside jokes and not mind the low-tech special effects. Everyone else will find the film hokey and overburdened with "pseudoscientific terminology" (Jay Carr, the Boston Globe). (Read Edelstein's review in Slate, and visit the official Star Trek site, where you can buy Star Trek mugs, posters, and Christmas cards.)

Rushmore (Buena Vista Pictures). "[B]lessed with a vivid sense of humor and an artistic integrity unlike those of any other American filmmaker working today" is how Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum describes the work of writing team Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson (who also paired up on the 1996 underground hit Bottle Rocket). The film, directed by Anderson, follows newcomer Jason Schwartzman as a dorky, overachieving high-school kid who competes with Bill Murray for a teacher's affections. The film is "from deep in left field--immaculately written, unexpectedly touching" and is full of "exuberance and innocence" (Jeff Giles, Newsweek). A few complain that the movie lags, and New York's Peter Rainier criticizes it for "callowness." (Visit the "Bill Murray Action News" page, which follows the actor's every move.)

A Simple Plan (Paramount Pictures). Sam Raimi's dark morality fable impresses the critics: It's a "rivetingly accomplished crime thriller" (Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). As two brothers who happen on millions of dollars in a plane that's crashed into a snow bank, Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton turn in performances that "can be described only as flawless" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). The reviewers have some reservations: The moral deterioration of the characters is hard to watch, and the inevitability of the plot's outcome can be stifling. But the overall verdict is that the director has a sure hand. (Slate's David Edelstein likes the film but calls some of the plot devices "a bit cheap." Read the rest of his review here.)


Jack Frost (Warner Bros.). This film about a man reincarnated as a snowman so that he may comfort his grieving son is said to be "treacly and fake" (Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). The animatronic snowman (with Michael Keaton's voice) looks like a "large, wisecracking marshmallow man" (the New York Times) and is described by Ebert as "the most repulsive single creature in the history of special effects." ("Never have I disliked a movie character more," Ebert adds.) USAToday's Mike Clark calls the last hour of the film "brain-damaging." The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, the film's only fan, praises its "sweet spirit and astute humor." (Visit the official site.)


The Tempest, by William Shakespeare (NBC; Sunday, Dec. 13). NBC racks up another bust. This loose Civil War-era adaptation of Shakespeare's Tempest is called "[a] miscalculation of epic proportions ... at times laugh-out-loud awful, at times offensive" (Daryl H. Miller, the Los Angeles Times). The film uses only two lines of Shakespeare's actual poetry (but is otherwise peppered with cheesy "I reckon"s). Peter Fonda, who plays the Prospero equivalent, is called "stone-faced and clueless" (Steve Parks, Newsday). (Read this interview with Fonda.)




The Blue Room, by David Hare (Cort Theatre, New York City). Nicole Kidman bares all! Who cares what David Hare did with Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde when there's celebrity flesh to be drooled over? American critics! They receive the play coldly, even though the Broadway run is almost sold out. The New York Times' Ben Brantley calls The Blue Room "a deft, efficient and sometimes amusing piece of work ... [t]he entire evening is not unlike Kidman's much-discussed body: smooth, pale, and slender." Other critics say the play has "outlived [its] raciness" (David Patrick Stearns, USA Today). Although La Ronde was banned at the turn of the century, nowadays its account of sexual encounters among various characters (all played by Kidman and her co-star Iain Glen) seems pretty tame. The play is "an aesthetic non-event, an anticlimax of proportions inevitably commensurate with its avalanche of advance publicity" (Charles Isherwood, Daily Variety). (Order tickets to the show online.)

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

  • 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.

  • Movie--Enemy of the State;
  • Movie--The Rugrats Movie;
  • Movie--Waking Ned Devine;
  • Movie--A Bug's Life;
  • Book--I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941, by Victor Klemperer;
  • Book--American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory, by Russ Rymer;
  • Television--Winchell (HBO).

  • Movie--Meet Joe Black;
  • Movie--Celebrity;
  • Movie--I'll Be Home for Christmas;
  • Movie--I Still Know What You Did Last Summer;
  • Movie--Dancing at Lughnasa;
  • Book--Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont;
  • Music--Spirit, by Jewel.