What Lameness Beneath

What Lameness Beneath

What Lameness Beneath

Highlights from the week in criticism.
July 21 2000 11:30 PM

What Lameness Beneath

Movies

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What Lies Beneath (DreamWorks SKG). A tepid critical reception for the new movie from director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), about the haunted housewife (Michelle Pfeiffer) of a brilliant scientist (Harrison Ford). It "tries aggressively, but not entirely successfully, to deliver the goods of three genres—suspense, supernatural, and horror—for the price of one movie" (Emanuel Levy, Variety). Similarly, though every reviewer admits to enjoying many of the film's moments, in the end "the parts [are] greater than the sum of the whole" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). There's no denying Pfeiffer's talents: She "avoids the most common problem for actors in horror films—she doesn't overreact" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Ford, on the other hand, gets labeled "The Creature Without a Pulse" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). In the end, whether the film succeeds seems to depend on your tolerance for its shortcomings.The Washington Post's Desson Howe, for one, succumbs to Zemeckis' stylish direction: "I haven't been this engrossed in a movie this flawed for some time." (Read David Edelstein's review in Slate or a Los Angeles Times piece about how gumshoe screenwriter Clark Gregg scored a solo credit on the $90 million picture.)

Loser (Columbia). The critics have little sympathy for this update of The Apartment (1960) in which the rural title character (Jason Biggs) goes to college in the big city and falls in love with another, different kind of loser (Mena Suvari). Though they would clearly love to love Loser for its pedigree—director Amy Heckerling made Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless, touchstones of the teen comedy genre—reviewers are impatient with the "maddening" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times) futility of Biggs' bid for Suvari's affections: "You keep waiting for the memorable scene, the snappy quip, the big twist, none of which ever arrives" (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post). Greg Kinnear earns the film's only consistent praise, "hitting the mark" as a "smug, predatory" literature professor who carries on an illicit affair with Suvari (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). But overall, "the odd-couple chemistry between leads never clicks, doused by a scenario that fumbles even its most basic elements" (Dennis Harvey, Variety). (The rules for "Ultimate Loser," an up-and-coming college drinking game, are here.)

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Chuck & Buck (Artisan Entertainment). This Sundance entry about a chronically immature twentysomething who's obsessed with his childhood pal gets terrific reviews. Stephen Hunter (the Washington Post) thinks that it "might be the Citizen Kane of twisted-geek movies."Slate's David Edelstein figures it "might be the most perversely agreeable stalker picture ever made." A.O. Scott (the New York Times) sets the bar somewhat lower, declaring that it "might be described as the Dogma 95 version of 'Disney's "The Kid." ' "Chuck & Buck might be a lot of things, but the critics' inability to describe the film doesn't diminish its power: Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) swoons, "It's the most haunting and resonant film I've seen this year." Only one naysayer, Joe Morgenstern (the Wall Street Journal) is infuriated by the movie's "refusal to acknowledge the full import of its premise." "What is the movie about?" Roger Ebert (the Chicago Sun-Times) asks himself. "It seems to be about buried sexuality or arrested development, but it's also a fascinating study of behavior that violates the rules." (Click here for Edelstein's review in Slate.)  

Books

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Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium, edited by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe, and Sabin Streeter (Crown Publishing). Modeled on the 1972 Studs Terkel book Working, Gig includes more than 120 first-person accounts of Americans in jobs as diverse as high-school basketball coach, crime-scene cleaner, and aspiring McDonald's french fryer. Reviewers find "something satisfying about knowing why people have chosen their paths in life—or how they were chosen for them" (Julie Hyman, the Washington Times). "Gig is a gem of a book that uses only the strength of the human voice to tell an American story—sometimes dark, always fascinating" (Henry Pearson, USA Today). It toes the line between vicarious "behind-the-scenes dish" (Bettijane Levine, the Los Angeles Times), as with a very spiteful UPS driver, and a more serious "window into the human condition" (Hyman), as with a complacent slaughterhouse director. Susan Faludi praises Gig in the Village Voice, lighting upon the cynicism of American workers as a contradiction to the conventional wisdom that we are in an economic boom: "Unintentionally or not, the stories in Gig deliver a more rousing political wallop than those in Working." (Co-editor Marisa Bowe explained the "LOL" e-mail acronym during her stint at Slate's "Breakfast Table.")

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The Angel on the Roof, by Russell Banks (HarperCollins). Unanimous praise for the collection of short stories by the author of The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction. Picking works from throughout his 37-year career, the author says he chose "only those [stories] that did not on rereading make me cringe with embarrassment''—and the critics concur. The New York Times' A.O. Scott, considering the long arc of Banks' career, finds the new collection "studded with surprising, hard-won acts of tenderness and decency." Scott's NYT colleague Janet Maslin agrees, calling Banks' stories "beautifully lucid, frequently wrenching." "He tells his stories in such a hushed, confessional tone that readers have no reason to question what he's telling them" (Ken Foster, the San Francisco Chronicle). Most critics also find that the stories set in the frozen tundra of New England, where Banks grew up, are the most successful, benefiting from the writer's "homing-pigeon intuition" (Scott). (Read a Salon interview with Banks.)

Music

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The Rising Tide, by Sunny Day Real Estate (Time Bomb Records). One of the few high-profile bands left from Seattle's 1992 punk/grunge renaissance, Sunny Day Real Estate gets mixed reviews with its first album since leaving the legendary Sub Pop music label. More than one reviewer compares SDRE's new sound to the odd combination of Rush and Joshua Tree-era U2. But despite the undeniable growth of the band's rabid fan base, the album is "best left for Seattle-sound completists" (Suzin Schneider, the Washington Times). "The band's punk-derived efficiency inhibits them from following their pomp-rock tendencies to the most grandiose possible expression" (Mark Jenkins, the Washington Post). But the Chicago Sun-Times' Kevin Williams describes the band's new sound as "delicate instrumental filigrees coupled with a sweet soprano to contrast with hard-hitting distorted bombast." (These are good things.) Billboard's Jonathon Cohen calls it "wildly melodramatic, moving, and [the band's] best shot at modern-rock marketability yet." (Click here to see the band's tour dates.)