Chewbacca Meets Jerry Lewis

Chewbacca Meets Jerry Lewis

Chewbacca Meets Jerry Lewis

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Nov. 18 2000 12:00 AM

Chewbacca Meets Jerry Lewis

Movies

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Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Universal Pictures). The words "shrill" and "charmless" seem to crop up over and over in reviews of this live-action adaptation of the much-loved Dr. Seuss story. Jim Carrey plays the Grinch and "works as hard as an actor has ever worked in a movie" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times) but just ends up looking like "an antic combination of Chewbacca and Jerry Lewis " (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). The main gripes: 1) The set is ugly. Seuss' artwork "has been expanded almost grotesquely" and ends up "unattractive and menacing" (Ebert). 2) The movie tries too hard and ends up "overproduced and essentially charmless" (Mike Clark, USA Today). Even critics who enjoyed the movie admit "the film's frenetic attempts to create a full-length feature film out of a slender, albeit beloved, children's book can be exhausting " (Turan). But most say Jim Carrey and director Ron Howard haven't just done a bad job, they've desecrated an icon: "It's not Christmas that's being stolen here. It's the spirit of Dr. Seuss" (Desson Howe, the Washington Post). (Click here to watch clips from the animated made-for-television version of the story.)—E.T.

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The 6th Day (Columbia). The critics wouldn't mind this film's fuzzy science if Arnold Schwarzenegger weren't so clunky at playing a clone. Sometime in the near future, Schwarzenegger's Adam Gibson comes home from work to find that another buff, biotechnically engineered blond has taken his place. The problem, critics say, is that you can't tell them apart. "Schwarzenegger, as a personality, is such a hammy and overdeliberate robolug that when he's on screen along with his double, there's no way to tell the difference" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). "When the two clones meet and Schwarzenegger acts opposite himself, there's so much dead weight that it looks as if the screen will topple over" (David Edelstein, Slate). Two questions come up: 1) Is this an intentional satire of the iconization of Ah-nold's character? 2) Can the film's stab at a cutting-edge topic redeem its conventionality? Answer 1: Though at points in the film he hints at his plastic surgery and cigar aficionadohood, Schwarzenegger can't pull off a spoof of himself—"the man is desperate for a hit, so the movie dare not overestimate the audience's intelligence" (Mark Caro, the Chicago Tribune). Answer 2: The film's "got some provocative ideas about the implications of cloning in a market-driven, capitalist society," but they're constantly "competing with clichéd explosions, car chases, gun battles and Schwarzenegger's trademark, ham-fisted quips" (Maitland McDonagh, TV Guide). For Schwarzenegger groupies: Critics rank the film below Terminator but above End of Days. (Click here to read Edelstein's review in Slate, here for the film's official site, and here for Arnold's official site).—Y.S.

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Bounce (Miramax). Don't judge this movie by its trailer. Critics say it's deeply moving and subtle—not the soppy suds they were expecting. Although it's being hyped as a "Sleepless in Seattle II... Bounce is unorthodox romantic fare" (Michael O'Sullivan, the Washington Post). Critics are doubly surprised by the film's earnest redemption theme, considering director Don Roos' nervy and brutish first film: ''Bounce is as quiet and sad and lyrical as The Opposite of Sex was brassy" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). Emotionally honest acting by Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck makes a seemingly contrived story—the touchy romance between a winsome widow and the shallow yuppie partially responsible for her husband's death—ring true. Paltrow "gives a performance of astounding delicacy and depth," and Affleck's performance as a swaggering but not really so confident ad exec recovering from alcoholism has an "understated intensity" that is tear-jerking but "never becomes mawkish" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). Some don't believe Affleck effectively "suggests that he's been through the wringer ... and found something resembling heart and soul" (Todd McCarthy, Daily Variety). But most think the two stars work wonders on screen even if their off-screen romance has faded. (Click here for the film's official site, with links to the misleading trailers, and here for an interview with Don Roos on his first film.)—Y.S.

Books

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Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, by Patrick Tierney (W.W. Norton). A regular donnybrook has broken out over Tierney's allegations of misdeeds by anthropologists Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel in the Brazilian rain forest. His main claims are that they committed genocide by intentionally using an unsafe measles vaccine that contributed to a devastating outbreak of the disease. (Tierney also claims they staged events for documentaries, falsified data, and incited wars.) Articles have flown fast and furious throughout the national and academic press, with most concluding that while Chagnon and Neel were probably not genocidal, they were certainly unethical. The National Academy of Sciences condemned the book thus: "Although Darkness in El Dorado gives the appearance of being well-researched, in many instances the author's conclusions are either contradicted or not supported by the references he cites." An article in the British New Scientist notes that the University of Michigan (where Chagnon and Neel both worked) released a statement claiming: "Tierney's book is the result of a long-standing professional vendetta by Chagnon's critics. … [A]t least two of the scientists whom Tierney quotes as questioning Neel's choice of the vaccine came to Neel's defence when contacted by New Scientist." The New York Times contends that Tierney "should have worked harder to prove this horrific charge," but that "his book's faults are outweighed by its mass of vivid, damning detail. My guess is that it will become a classic in anthropological literature, sparking countless debates over the ethics and epistemology of field studies" (John Horgan). (Anthropologist John Tooby condemned the book in Slate and tweaked The New Yorker for excerpting the book; the magazine responded here.)— E.T.

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Don't Tell Anyone, by Frederick Busch (W.W. Norton). Critics interrupt their superlatives only to provide long, glowing descriptions of Busch's short fiction. Busch's 24th (!) book bedazzles: "Fascinating," "masterly," "poignant," proclaims Publishers Weekly; this is a "radiant," "perfect" collection "of incandescent storytelling" (Robert Allen Papinchak, the Chicago Tribune). Its 16 stories and one novella are about family relationships, especially secrets and betrayals. Critics praise Busch for keeping it real: His characters are "completely credible and very much themselves" and his plots replete with "wholly unexpected" events (Margot Livesey, the New York Times Book Review). Reviewers also compare Busch's stories favorably to those of the masters: "There's as much adultery and denial going on in the Hudson River town of Busch's bittersweet stories as ever was found in Cheever county. ... And like Cheever, Busch is an immensely intelligent and insightful writer" with a "dry sense of humor" (Edward Neuert, Salon); "Busch's language is richer, and his technique more subtle, but he shares Carver's empathy for characters in even the most sordid situation" (David Guy, the Washington Post). (Click here to read the first story and here for reviews of his other works.)— Y.S.

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Other Traditions, by John Ashbery (Harvard University Press), and This Craft of Verse, by Jorge Luis Borges (Harvard University Press). Critics are mostly impressed by these collections of Norton lectures on poetry delivered at Harvard by two respected writers. They do disagree over the readability of Ashbery's description of the lives and works of six minor poets who inspire him: Some reviewers think the lectures are Ashbery "at his most accessible" (Taylor Antrim, the New York Times Book Review), while others find "his poetry is far more accessible than his prose" (Susan Salter Reynolds, the Los Angeles Times). But all agree the lectures are witty and worthwhile reading: It's "an entertaining and shrewd little book" full of "delightful anecdotes" about eccentric and obscure poets, "remarkable poems and fragments ... rescued from oblivion," and "abundant hints about Ashbery's own method" (Charles Simic, New York Review of Books). Borges' lectures are likewise praised for their wit and charm, if not for their originality or insight into his other writings. This Craft of Verse comprises Borges' extemporaneous and modest musings on his love for literature, filled with quotations from the works of others. Borges champions "the simple experience of poetry" and "invites us to appreciate him more as a reader than as a writer" (Carlin Romano, the Philadelphia Inquirer). "[T]he approach is one of extreme courtesy and simplicity. ... Borges's presentation may be likened to intelligent rambling" (Michael Dirda, the Washington Post). (Click {{here#2:http://www.faz.com/IN/INtemplates/eFAZ/docmain.asp?rub={B1311FD3-FBFB-11D2-B228-00105A9CAF88}&doc={086BEFDE-B66F-11D4-B99E-009027BA226C}}} to read about a current centenary Borges exhibit and here for the American Academy of Poets Ashbery archive.)— Y.S.

Yael Schacher is a Slateintern.

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