Highlights from the week in criticism.
Sept. 9 2000 12:00 AM

Keanu the Killer

 

Movies

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Nurse Betty (USA Films). The winner for best screenplay at Cannes gets mostly rapturous reviews, though there are some vocal dissenters. Renée Zellweger plays a soap-opera obsessed Kansas housewife who sees her husband murdered by two hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) and as a result becomes "dissociative," thinking that her favorite soap character is in love with her. She heads to Los Angeles to find him, followed by the hit men. Zellweger's skillful performance is one that "audiences (and Oscar voters) can't help but find irresistible" (Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today). Many note with happy surprise that misanthropic director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors) has widened his range to include funny and sweet; others think it doesn't work: Nurse Betty"is like watching My Little Pony come out of Jurassic Park" (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker). "It ridicules people who are transfixed by soap operas, but it's too corrupt to acknowledge that the fantasy it's peddling—a blend of easy feminism and smug satire and gore—is even more suspect," charges Slate's David Edelstein, but most reviewers think the movie is "an utter original with a little something to say and a way of saying it that manages to be at once delightful and bilious" (Michael O'Sullivan, the Washington Post). (Read the rest of Edelstein's review here, and listen to audio clips of Chris Rock's stand-up here.)

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The Way of the Gun (Artisan). Positive reviews for the directorial debut of Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning writer of The Usual Suspects. The Byzantine plot concerns two thugs (Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro) who get more than they bargain for when they kidnap a rich couple's surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis). The cast does well, with Phillippe, Del Toro, Lewis, Taye Diggs, and James Caan each getting singled out by at least one critic. The Los Angeles Times calls it "an implement of destruction loaded with more borrowed film riffs than could be compiled by 47 clones of Robert Rodriguez" (John Anderson) but, though many have complaints, "it's clear that, derivative though he may be, [McQuarrie]'s a natural born filmmaker" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). Other critics are effusive in their praise, calling Gun an "all-scum-all-the-time masterwork" (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post). (Click here for a Usual Suspects fan page where you can download McQuarrie's script for the film.)

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The Watcher (Universal Pictures). Gruesome reviews for the latest formula serial-killer movie. "[I]t's something no one should watch. Not this weekend. Not on video. Not in this lifetime" (Desson Howe, the Washington Post). James Spader stars as a migraine-suffering FBI agent chasing serial killer Keanu Reeves. The by-the-numbers scenario is a topic of universal derision, as are the movie's endless clichés, such as an elaborately candlelit final scene: "Just once in a pervert killer movie, I wish they'd show a scene where he's pushing a cart through the Hallmark store, actually buying all those candles" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). How's Keanu as a killer? Some critics praise his effort, but most find him totally bogus: "Keanu Reeves, the human equivalent of a blank Scrabble tile, is ludicrously miscast as a smirky psycho-glamourpuss" (Rita Kempley, the Washington Post). Co-star Marisa Tomei is rudely mocked for having sunk from Oscar winner to playing the woman-in-jeopardy: "That Academy Award has really given her the power to pick and choose, hasn't it?" (Howe). (Read about the strange allure of Spader in the James Spader Discussion Forum.)

A scene from Whipped

Whipped (Destination Films). When was the last time a film was compared to toilet paper by two separate critics? (USA Today's Andy Seiler calls it a "toilet-paper-thin tale" and the Washington Post's Rita Kempley one-ups him by comparing it unfavorably to one-ply toilet paper.) With a plot about three scamming guys who get duped by the foxy Amanda Peet, Whipped takes a harder beating than any film in recent memory. "Grotesquely smutty and obnoxiously overbearing, this is a pitiful excuse for a comedy" (Joe Leydon, Daily Variety); "Whipped may set an all-time record for raw tonnage of sexual fear and loathing spewed per minute by a Hollywood movie. [A] bottom-feeding monstrosity of a comedy. … There are moments when this dirty-mouthed revenge comedy becomes so mean-spirited that you almost gasp at its cruelty" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times); "[T]he humor is so coarse that it makes There's Something About Mary look like A Night at the Opera" (Seiler). Even Über blurb-whore Kevin Thomas can't get his thumbs up for this one, saying it's "way too bleak to be funny" (the Los Angeles Times). (Click here to watch excerpts from the film on the New York Times' Web site, and here to visit the film's official site.)

A scene from Love & Sex

Love & Sex (Lions Gate Films). Middling reviews for this romantic comedy starring Famke Janssen and Jon Favreau. Critics praise the two lead performances: Janssen is "funny, game, unimpressed by her own beauty, and always ready to eat. … [She] gives new props to ex-models, single-handedly raising Love & Sex to see level" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). Her co-star Favreau is "as brilliant and crazy and self-absorbed as Woody Allen or Albert Brooks but [his] self-absorption doesn't shape and color everything else in the movie" (David Edelstein, Slate). But the film never puts it all together in a satisfying package, and the least impressed say the romantic comedy "is all solipsistic jaded-Cosmo patter, in which the principals—self-obsessed but not self-aware—are angry that their lives are not perfect" (Jessica Winter, the Village Voice). For more on Jon Favreau in Swingers click here, and for more on Famke Janssen in Celebrity click here.)

The Original Kings of Comedy (Paramount Pictures). Top-notch reviews for Spike Lee's concert film documenting two nights in the top-grossing comedy tour featuring Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac: "[U]ntil Kings' eventual video release, it may be difficult to gauge just how funny the movie is; a spirited weekend evening crowd is likely to obscure maybe 30% of the dialogue with its laughter" (Mike Clark, USA Today). The biggest bone of contention is where the film ranks in relation to Richard Pryor's and Eddie Murphy's. Some put it on par, "Not since the glory days of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy have we had such a concert film" (Jay Carr, the Boston Globe); while others place it between the two, "[W]ithin respectable range of the Pryor films and above Eddie Murphy Raw" (Mike Clark, USA Today). One critic finds the comedy too one-note, "so relentlessly obsessed with the different ways that black people and white people experience the world that the jokes ultimately pile up into an orgy of racial generalities" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here to read David Plotz's "Assessment" of Spike Lee.)

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.