Along Came a Stinker

Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 6 2001 11:30 PM

Along Came a Stinker

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Movies Blow (New Line Cinema). It blows. Critics pan this shamelessly revisionist portrait of a drug dealer. A "deeply mediocre dope opera" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice), the film starts with small-town boy George Jung (Johnny Depp) leaving his parents (Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths) and moving out West, where everyone smokes weed and love is free. From there, the trip from small-time pot smuggler to coke king is a short, cruel one. This "overstuffed profile" portrays the powder-meister as "a far more romantic figure than we can believe he actually was" (Jack Mathews, the New York Daily News), and what results is "way too predictable"; "no one could find a way to make the proceedings of even minimal interest" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). While the film twists facts remorselessly, and thus flops as a romantic recasting of the truth and also as a cautionary tale, Roger Ebert insists that "the failure is George Jung's." (Watch Blow trailers here. Slate's David Edelstein can't forgive the movie for its lies; read his review here. Click here to visit Cocaine Anonymous.)— S.G.

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Along Came a Spider (Paramount). This police thriller, a prequel to Kiss the Girls (1997), is standard studio fare—"the closest the movie comes to inventiveness is to end in a barn instead of a warehouse" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times)—somewhat satisfying and inane, critics say, though they lavish extravagant praise on Morgan Freeman. "How does [he] manage to give a master class in acting every time he appears on screen? ... He seems to do very little ... yet he imbues the detective with dignity, grace and presence" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). Still, some critics find Freeman's stately repose too sleepy—"Somewhere, Miss Manners is applauding. Somewhere, an audience member is yawning" (Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today)—and the film's plotting too far-fetched. Freeman's co-stars are also cause for some critical comparisons and head scratching: His partner (Monica Potter) is a Julia Roberts clone "but blond and bland as vanilla pudding" (Wloszczyna), and the kidnapper he's after (Michael Wincott) has his "latex disguise so crudely affixed ... he looks like Ronald McDonald after going 15 rounds with Rocky Balboa" (Rita Kempley, the Washington Post). (Click here for a Freeman fan site.)— Y.S.

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Just Visiting (Buena Vista). Critics say this expensive remake of the French blockbuster Les Visiteurs (1993) loses a lot in translation. The plot: A wizard accidentally sends an 11th-century nobleman (Jean Reno) and his squire (Christian Clavier) to modern-day Chicago, and much "feckless fall-down-go-boom" humor ensues (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post). Though "Americans will probably get a few mild chuckles out of Mr. Reno's assault on an S.U.V. he believes to be a dragon and Mr. Clavier's messy attempts to operate a blender" or to eat urinal cakes (Dave Kehr, the New York Times), the remake "drains the original story of its satire and juices up its ... schmaltz and special effects" (Gene Seymour, the Los Angeles Times). And the American cast members (such as star Christina Applegate) "seem out of place, flailing as they struggle with their cartoon-ish roles" (Andy Seiler, USA Today). (Click here for the official site.)— Y.S.

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Television
That's My Bush! (Comedy Central, premieres Wednesday, April 4, 10:30 p.m.). Good advance reviews for this very un-West Wing parody of the first family from the makers of South Park. The creators send up sitcom clichés—an audience hoots at the president's sexy assistant and chants along with a booby Bush (Timothy Bottoms) as he tags "One of these days, Laura, I'm gonna punch you in the face!" (He also faints like Basil on Fawlty Towers.) Other familiar White House and sitcom characters: uptight Karl Rove, a sassy maid, a nosy neighbor named Larry. The first two episodes: 1) Bush schedules a romantic dinner with Laura and a fondue abortion summit for the same night. A pro-life activist—an abortion survivor—is played by a diapered, deformed, baby puppet with a comb-over. 2) Bush plans a fake execution to impress his old Yale frat brothers but mistakenly kills a convict by Drano injection after farting in his face, calling him scum, and grabbing the priest's Bible. The pre-premiere buzz: Creators were forbidden to portray the Bush daughters as lesbian lovers. The critics: "it's crudeness that achieves brilliance" (Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly); "a satire of hero worship ... the first true post-Clinton comedy" (Caryn James, the New York Times). Slate's David Edelstein disagrees, calling the show's irony old and the political disinterestedness toothless. (Click here to read Edelstein's review, click here for an interview with Bottoms, and here for the show's official site.)— Y.S.

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What About Joan (ABC, Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m.). Critics agree Joan Cusack is a talented comic actress but disagree about how well she makes the transition to television. Cusack plays a high-school teacher who freaks out when the guy she's dating proposes to her. Many call the show a frustrating shame: "The always adorable Joan Cusack is betrayed by the relationship comedy Joan" (James Poniewozik, Time); "Cusack deserves better on every level" (Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly). These critics say Cusack overplays and comes off as too manic and frantic, all rubber face and little character, and think the show might work if she toned it down and the rest of the cast were given some better material. But some love her just the way she is—"she slips into the sitcom format every bit as comfortably as Bette Midler didn't" (David Bianculli, the New York Daily News); "Cusack is never anything less than delightful" (Nancy Franklin, The New Yorker)—and fall hard for her show: "it's positively aglow with Joanness and inimitably Joanacious ... full of clever and cute touches, smart dialogue, believably zany characters" (Tom Shales, the Washington Post). (Click here for a Joan Cusack fan site.)— Y.S.

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Music Isolation Drills, by Guided by Voices (TVT). The former garage band from Ohio turns out its second slick studio production after Do the Collapse (1999). Although this hi-fi sound on the group's 12th album might rankle some fans used to a grittier feel, the critics rave: GBV "dashes off addictive power-pop songs the way McDonald's cranks out McNuggets. … [ Isolation Drills ] is GBV's most spit-polished batch of power-chord mini-masterpieces yet. Dig in" (Chris Nashawaty, Fortune). Frontman Robert Pollard, a 43-year-old former schoolteacher and hulk of a Midwesterner, "may be less esoteric and winkingly absurdist, but he's a markedly more openly honest (not to mention concise) songwriter" (Colin Helms, CMJ). The album "presents Pollard's most personal lyrics ever and collects his most consistent batch of songs since his mid-'90s peak"(Greg Kot, the Chicago Tribune). The band, critics say, strikes a good balance between "arena-rock posturing and indie jangle. …Who'd have thunk these aging indie godfathers would wear their maturity so well?" (Helms). (Click here for the band's official site.)— L.S.

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A Chance To Cut Is a Chance To Cure, by Matmos (Matador). Good reviews for a concept album critics say is more than just novel gimmickry. But, they warn, read the liner notes at your own risk. The experimental duo took their DATs into operating theaters and recorded the sounds of cosmetic surgeries like liposuctions and nose jobs. Songs incorporate the beeps of hearing tests, the knocking of bones, and the buzzes of laser eye surgery. The result is a "cut and paste dance collage" that "must be the most organic work of electronic wizardry on the market" (Neva Chonin, the San Francisco Chronicle). But why, you ask? Critics say its an attempt to put the human back into mechanical music and, though "not for the squeamish," it "illuminates the strange, fascinating worlds where technology and the human body intersect" in our vain pursuit of self-improvement (Joshua Klein, the Washington Post). Plus, critics say, its poppy, playful sound makes it a lot less gross or pretentious than it could be. In fact, critics say you'd never guess the source of the sounds if you just popped the CD in blind. (Click here for the Matmos Cut site; here for their bios from Matador; and here for samples.)— Y.S.

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Yael Schacher is a Slateintern.

Siân Gibby assists in editing the Faith-Based column. She copy-edits for Slate.

Laurie Snyder is Slate's copy chief.

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