Highlights from the week in criticism.
Aug. 19 2000 12:00 AM

Constipated English Whimsy 

 

Movies

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The Cell (New Line Cinema). This visually opulent sci-fi, serial-killer film garners wildly mixed reviews. Jennifer Lopez plays a child psychologist who, with the help of an FBI agent (Vince Vaughn), literally enters the mind of a serial killer (Vincent D'Onofrio) in order to save the life of his latest captive. The inside of the killer's brain is superbly realized, a beautiful and frightening mindscape—"Alice in Schizoland" (David Edelstein, Slate). The film's cinematography and production design are roundly praised, but the rest of the movie comes under fire. Some reviewers find fault with the film's gruesomeness—"[M]ostly what it's about is torture" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times)—though another lauds its "original and stylish vision of insanity" (Michael O'Sullivan, the Washington Post). Roger Ebert's review encapsulates the critical split: "I know people who hate it, finding it pretentious or unrestrained; I think it's one of the best films of the year" (the Chicago Sun-Times). (Jennifer Lopez's abdominal muscles have their own fan page.)

Saving Grace (Fine Line Features). Weak reviews for this one-joke comedy about an aging British lady (Brenda Blethyn) forced to farm and sell pot to pull herself out of debt. As A.O. Scott wisely points out, this movie "tries to do for marijuana-dealing what The Full Monty did for male striptease," and the fact that the principals are "English and elderly apparently makes their antics screamingly funny to people who would turn up their noses at similar humor in a film like Scary Movie" (the New York Times). Some are even less charitable, calling the film "constipated English whimsy for the easily tickled" and claiming that the profusion of old-biddies-getting-the-munchies scenes make the movie "inanely upbeat and grindingly obvious" and with "a checklist of inevitable tee-heeing scenarios" (Dennis Lim, the Village Voice). (Visit NORML's Web site to hear pro-pot public service radio spots by Willie Nelson, "America's most beloved marijuana smoker.")

Steal This Movie! (Lions Gate Films). Disappointing reviews for this bio-pic on the life and times of '60s counterculture figure Abbie Hoffman. The movie is structured as a series of flashbacks: Hoffman (Vincent D'Onofrio) tells a reporter about his life—from Yippie political activism to being chased by the feds on drug charges. The "uninspired this-happened-then-that-happened structure" and "obvious budget restraints" give it "the feel of a small-screen project" (Robert Koehler, Variety). But a forceful performance by D'Onofrio (also applauded for his role in The Cell) and "a tender, finely shaded" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times) performance by Janeane Garofalo as Hoffman's wife give the film some emotional heft. Many critics wish it had more of the wit that Hoffman himself exhibited: "[I]t somehow doesn't taste of Abbie Hoffman, or of his will to embarrass; it feels alkaline, easy to live with, and hardly ever funny" (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker). (Here's the text of a speech Hoffman delivered a year before his death titled "Reflections on Student Activism.")

Autumn in New York (MGM). Few kind words for this would-be Love Story 2000, which marks a step down for director Joan Chen from her acclaimed debut, Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl. Richard Gere plays a middle-aged lothario who falls for a terminally ill woman (Winona Ryder) less than half his age. All reviews note that Autumn didn't screen for critics, and most understand why. Gere and Ryder, "the tiresome twosome" (Rita Kempley, the Washington Post), don't have a lot of chemistry, but that isn't the movie's main problem: "the fake and facile nature of the entire proceedings" (Emanuel Levy, Variety) is more of an issue. Blurbmeister Kevin Thomas, representing a minority of one, loved this film: "[A] classic woman's picture that is also a depiction of a man transformed by love beyond his imagining" (the Los Angeles Times). But be warned: "[O]nly the most diehard sentimentalists will fail to smell a rat" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). (Join the Winona Ryder "The One and Only" chat room here.)

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Books

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Taken for a Ride: How Daimler-Benz Drove Off With Chrysler, by Bill Vlasic and Bradley A. Stertz (Morrow). A clear, well-researched account of how Chrysler knuckled under to its current German partner: "[A] fast-paced ride through oversize egos, raw tempers, secret meetings, titanic clashes and power plays of the cross-cultural corporate merger of two automotive behemoths" (Publishers Weekly). Many reviewers compare it with Barbarians at the Gate, which is surely sending Morrow publicists into fits of joy. Most notable is the way the authors, both auto industry reporters for the Detroit News, "accomplish the rare feat of explaining what happened in considerable detail and yet with such clarity that they will not put off even readers who routinely skip their newspapers' business sections" (Keith Bradsher, the New York Times Book Review). Surprisingly enough, the Wall Street Journal, of all publications, complains—in an otherwise positive review—that the book goes into too much detail about the massive merger: "[T]heir account is so thorough that one finds oneself, at times, wishing for less rather than more" (Mark Yost). (Check out Chrysler's new PT Cruiser here.)

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The Gentleman From New York: Daniel Patrick Moynihan—A Biography, by Godfrey Hodgson (Houghton Mifflin). Critics line up like courtiers to kiss the ring of this biography of the retiring senator, calling it a "lucid, engaging study of the life and career of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Senate's philosopher-king" (Todd S. Purdum, the New York Times Book Review). Many reviewers can't help but slip in a word or two about their own close personal ties with the senator: "I first met Moynihan while he was serving the Kennedy administration. … As almost 40 years have gone by, I have felt ever more strongly that Moynihan is a miracle of decency and intellect, a genuinely great man" (Michael Pakenham, the Baltimore Sun). Some mention Moynihan's love of drink with a wink and a nudge, and others note in passing the barrels of pork he brought home to New York, but few knock the glowing record laid out in this laudatory book by the British journalist and former Moynihan neighbor. The only review that questions the dispassion of the author is Publishers Weekly, which claims that this is "a colorful if not always balanced account" and that "Hodgson's summary of the senator's legislative record is uncritical." Judging from all the bowing and scraping by critics who call it evenhanded, this reader is inclined to trust the unsigned review. (Read the first chapter here.)

Eliza Truitt, a former editor at Slate, now works as a wedding photographer in Seattle.

Ben Wasserstein is an associate editor at New York magazine.