Tepid Tea

Tepid Tea

Tepid Tea

Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 18 1999 10:19 PM

Tepid Tea

Movies

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Tea With Mussolini (Universal Pictures). This story about a group of English and American ladies living in 1930s Florence--sort of an "Enchanted Fascist April" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly)--receives tepid reviews. Surprisingly, Cher is the highlight of the movie and holds her own among Lily Tomlin, Judi Dench, and a gaggle of other British actresses: "Cher is terrific here doing what she does best: Wearing heavy makeup and being flamboyant"(Mike Clark, USA Today). Aside from her performance, though, the film isn't much more than "a kind of sub-Merchant-Ivory mix of eccentric ladies and enchanting scenery" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). (Check out this collection of Cher photos through the ages.)

The Phantom Menace (20th Century Fox). More negative responses: The critics are resentful about the fact that the film will rake in money despite their reviews. A few, such as the Chicago Sun-Times' Ebert, defend the film: "If it were the first "Star Wars" movie, 'The Phantom Menace' would be hailed as a visionary breakthrough. ... How quickly do we grow accustomed to wonders." The Weekly Standard's John Podhoretz also praises the film, saying "it will strike a chord with audiences for the same reason that its predecessors did: It is earnest, well-meaning, and delightfully free of irony. ... The jokes in Phantom Menace are broad and childish in a way that may displease sophisticates but will be endearing to everyone else." The more high-flown critics are flush with Schadenfreude at what they see as director George Lucas' fall from glory. Some even take jabs at the gullibility of eager fans. Anthony Lane writes in The New Yorker: "It is, of course, profoundly gratifying that "The Phantom Menace" should emerge as a work of almost unrelieved awfulness. It means, for one thing, that the laugh is on all those dweebs who have spent the last month camped out on the sidewalks beside movie theatres, waiting for the big day." (Read David Edelstein's take on the film in Slate.)

Books

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Turn of the Century, by Kurt Andersen (Random House). Former New York magazine editor, Spy co-founder, and current New Yorker writer Kurt Andersen's satire of late-'90s culture wins good reviews, but many carp about its weaknesses. 1) The irony is laid on too thick: Andersen is "so arch you could almost drive through him" (Daniel Okrent, Time). 2) Turn of the Century is not a novel with a plot so much as a collection of riffs, observations, and set pieces on subjects such as Microsoft, Hollywood, and Manhattan power couples. Although it "bristles with sharply observed detail" (David Gates, Newsweek), the book runs into trouble in terms of developing characters and maintaining any sort of pacing or momentum. (Click here to read Slate's "Book Club" about the novel; click here to read an excerpt [requires free registration].)

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Close Range: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx (Scribner). The words "bleak," "harsh," and "tough" show up in almost every review of Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx's collection of stories set in her adopted state of Wyoming. The word "powerful" shows up frequently, too. Cowboys, ranch hands, and the unforgiving nature of life out west are her main subjects, and by all accounts she handles them with extraordinary skill and control. The critics can't say enough about her tight, honed prose: She gets the speech patterns just right ("a stunningly authentic voice," declares Michael Knight in the Wall Street Journal), she writes "sentences whose specific gravity mysteriously exceeds their size" (Walter Kirn, New York), and her characters have an "absolute authenticity" (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the New York Times). (Listen to this CBC interview with Proulx.)

Why We Buy, by Paco Underhill (Simon & Schuster). Critics say this exploration of what factors affect a shopper's behavior within a store is interesting, but several grouse that at times it reads as if the "book is really one long advertisement for Envirosell" (Michelle Marchetti, Sales & Marketing Management), Underhill's consulting company. If the subject sounds familiar, it's because The New Yorker reported Underhill's findings in 1996 (the Wall Street Journal, Paula Throckmorton Zakaria). Many reviewers are fascinated by the sociological details of retail shopping--things like the "butt brush factor" (a woman often won't buy something if another customer accidentally brushes her behind while she's shopping) or how the positions of signs and chairs in a store affect a shopper's likelihood of actually purchasing an item. (Click here to read a chapter.)

Snap Judgment

Music

Take Your Shoes Off, by Robert Cray. Great reviews for Memphis soul-blues singer and guitarist Cray's 11th album: "A sheer blast of rocking good times" (Amy Linden, People). It may not break any new ground, but it nevertheless impresses the critics--Joe Rosenthal of Rolling Stone writes that it is "a slow-burning soul record--and one of the most focused album's of Cray's 25 year career."