Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 11 1999 3:30 AM




Payback (Paramount Pictures). Mel Gibson plays a hard-boiled bad guy intent on recovering some stolen money in this adaptation of Richard Stark's novel The Hunter (which was also the basis for John Boorman's acclaimed modern noir Point Blank in 1967). This version is directed by L.A. Confidential writer Brian Helgeland, and most critics pan it: "The film is utterly devoid of narrative ingenuity and visual and dramatic flair. ... What one word might best describe Payback? How about 'Loathsome'?" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). Complaints: 1) The violence is over the top: "Watching it is like riding a roller coaster through a meat grinder." 2) Gibson is too chipper for a noir hero: "[H]e's like a chipmunk with a Smith & Wesson" (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post). Slate's David Edelstein calls it "inflated Pocket Books pulp." A small cadre, including the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert and the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan, praise the movie as a sort of film noir parody. (Check out the official site, and read Edelstein's review here.)

Simply Irresistible (20th Century Fox). Negative reviews for this Like Water for Chocolate-style magical food romance. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Sarah Michelle Gellar stars as a cook in love and in trouble. Critics blast the sappy romance as well as the "dismayingly formulaic view of enchantment. Magic is signified by levitating people à la Mary Poppins, playing wind-chimes on the soundtrack or flooding a scene with dry ice" (Desson Howe, the Washington Post). Roger Ebert (who manages to work the odd sexual euphemism "the old rumpy-pumpy" into his review for the second time in three months) defends the movie as fun fluff: "The movie is as light as a soufflé, as fleeting as a breath of pumpkin pie on the breeze from a widow's window" (the Chicago Sun-Times). (This fan site has loads of pictures of the lovely Miss Gellar.)

Rushmore (Buena Vista Pictures). Critics lavish director Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson (who performed similar duties on Bottle Rocket) with praise for their film about a bright but underachieving high-school misfit (Jason Schwartzman) who ends up competing with Bill Murray for the affection of a young teacher: "an exuberantly original comedy" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). Murray has won several critics' awards for his performance, but now that the film is in general release (it had a brief run in December to qualify for the Academy Awards), a few dissenters have surfaced, including the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern and Slate's David Edelstein, who says the writers "spend a lot of time patting themselves on the back for being aggressively unconventional." (Watch a clip from the movie here and read the rest of Edelstein's review here.)

Dry Cleaning (Strand Releasing). Critics call this French farce remarkably tame and wonder if an industry known for its cheerful sex romps has lost its edge. The story follows a bourgeois small-town couple with a dry cleaning business whose lives are turned upside down after a young drag performer they meet in a club ends up moving in with them. This sounds like racy stuff, but critics say the story has the "structure and implacable momentum of a stern moral fable" (Holden, the New York Times) and is more interested in dissecting the slow tragedy of the couple's disintegrating marriage than in high jinks. (Find out more about French star Miou-Miou here.)



Werewolves in Their Youth, by Michael Chabon (Random House). David Foster Wallace wrote in Infinite Jest: "Talent is its own expectation. ... You either live up to it or it waves a hankie, receding forever," and many reviewers seem to see the hankie waving here at the boy wonder who a decade ago wowed the critics with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. As Michael Gorra says in the New York Times Books Review, "Promising is still the word I'd choose" to describe this collection, "but after 10 years and four books that adjective has to seem a disappointment." Critics say that despite a few outstanding exceptions, most of the collection is overly self-conscious and marked by stories that start out interesting but end up failing when Chabon ties them all up too neatly at the end. (Read an excerpt courtesy of the New York Times [ free registration required ].)



You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (Ambassador Theatre, New York City). Broadway's revival of this amateur-theater staple gets solid reviews and a few performers get all-out raves, most notably Kristin Chenoweth as Sally Brown. John Simon describes Chenoweth's performance as "perfection" and says that after the show he wanted "to wrap her in tissue paper and take her home" (New York); Ben Brantley describes her performance as "one of those break-out performances that send careers skyward" (the New York Times). Some critics say several of the actors aren't up to portraying children but that those who succeed make the whole show worthwhile. (Find out about show times and ticket prices here; you can get Shockwave animations of various Peanuts characters here.)


Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

  • Movie--She's All That;
  • Movie--The 24 Hour Woman;
  • Movie--Still Crazy;
  • Movie--My Name Is Joe;
  • Book--What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, by Danielle Crittenden;
  • Book--Amy and Isabelle, by Elizabeth Strout;
  • Book--Heavy Water, by Martin Amis.


  • Movie--Gloria;
  • Movie--Playing by Heart;
  • Movie--Another Day in Paradise;
  • Book--Reporting Live, by Lesley Stahl;
  • Book--Face-Time, by Erik Tarloff;
  • Book--Miss Nobody, by Tomek Tryzna.

  • Movie--Varsity Blues;
  • Movie--At First Sight;
  • Movie--In Dreams;
  • Book--Duane's Depressed, by Larry McMurtry;
  • Book--The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead;
  • Theater--Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance (Broadhurst Theatre, New York City).

  • Movie--Affliction;
  • Movie--Hilary and Jackie;
  • Movie--The Hi-Lo Country;
  • Book--The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America--The Stalin Era, by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev;
  • Book--Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker, by Susan Cheever;
  • Book--Glamorama, by Bret Easton Ellis.