The critics' take on Fellowship of the Ring, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Dec. 18 2001 2:59 PM

They Love the Lord

What the critics are saying about Fellowship of the Ring, A Beautiful Mind, and more.

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Movies
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line). Near-unanimous praise for Peter Jackson's update of J.R.R. Tolkien's fairy story, the "best big-budget fantasy movie in years" (David Denby, The New Yorker). The most common critical nitpicks: The New York Times' Elvis Mitchell notes that "there's a crushing amount of explanation required" before the hobbits' quest really gets moving. The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert and other purists mourn that "the Hobbits themselves have been pushed off center stage," and, thus, "a true visualization of Tolkien's Middle-earth it is not." (Click here to read David Edelstein's Slate review and here to visit the film's Web site.)— B.C.

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A Beautiful Mind (Universal Pictures). Glowing reviews for Russell Crowe in Ron Howard's film about Nobel Prize-winning, schizophrenic game-theorist John Forbes Nash Jr. In "a stupendous piece of acting," the "brooding, tightly wound Crowe shows Nash's cerebral convolutions on his face" (David Edelstein, Slate). And although some call Akiva Goldsman's screenplay both a bit beleaguered and historically revisionist, most critics agree it's "different and effective" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times): an "elegant solution to the problem of how to turn the biography of a man's head into an absorbing movie" (Lisa Schwartzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here to read Chris Suellentrop's "Culturebox" on the script's factual inaccuracies.)— A.B.

The Majestic (Warner Bros.). "Frank Capra must be turning over in his grave," says the Washington Post's Stephen Hunter about this new Jim Carrey feel-good period piece in which a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter awakens with amnesia—"Amnesia!  Are you kidding me!" (Hunter)—in an idyllic town whose residents confuse him with a lost war hero. Others critics concur. "The Majestic isn't," quips the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan, calling the screenplay "a derivative, self-satisfied fable." Worse yet is Carrey's performance as yet another "guileless naïf" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times): "When [he] breaks into an 'aw, shucks' smile, you can spot the maniacal trickster lurking beneath the bland demeanor that the part imposes on him" (Claudia Puig, USA Today). (Click here for the official Web site.)—A.B.

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How High (Universal). Shockingly enough, reviews for this drugs-and-sex comedy starring rappers Method Man and Redman are not entirely negative. Though it's a "chaotic mess of a film" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times) that lacks even the "redeeming social value of a cockfight" (Mike Clark, USA Today), some critics admit to enjoying parts of the "big stereotypical culture-clash festival" (Gene Seymour, Newsday) that results when two inner-city marijuana enthusiasts smoke IQ-improving weed and enroll at Harvard. It offers "enough low-grade laughs to entertain significantly more than some of the more prestigious year-end releases," says Clark. The Los Angeles Times' Kevin Thomas even sees "jabs at the hypocrisy and condescension of the snobby academic and social ruling classes" among the pot jokes, though he may be suffering from dope-induced dementia. (Click here for an article about drug use at Harvard that appeared in the school's outstanding student-produced weekend magazine.)— B.M.L.

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Books London: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). Sound notices for a "prodigiously researched history that is neither top-down nor bottom-up but cross-sectional: Shunning traditional chronology and players (aristocrats are scarce), Ackroyd instead offers a London defined by a set of recurring motifs," including, among other things, "smell, sound, speech, fog, fire, ghosts, and plague" (the New York Times). "Ackroyd makes omniscience look easy" (the Village Voice): A writer "of enormous gusto," his book is "as much a tone poem as a 'biography' or work of history" (Michael Dirda, the Washington Post). The only tinge of criticism? London"successfully emulates its subject: It is hard to navigate but fun to explore—baffling and fascinating by turns" (The New Yorker). (Visit the book's U.K. Web site, where you can watch a video interview with Ackroyd.)— A.B.

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A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal, by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury). Chortles for this "amusingly messy account" of the loudmouth chef's "global search for the perfect meal" (Sam Sifton, the New York Times). Bourdain, "notorious for the restaurant tell-all Kitchen Confidential," explores "extreme cuisine": everything from fugu ("the deadly puffer fish") in Japan to cobra heart in Ho Chi Minh City (USA Today). And critics lap it up, calling his enthusiasm "so intense it practically explodes off the page" (Sifton) and his lingo "crude" and "macho" enough to "make a sailor blush" (Rochelle O'Gorman, Book). (Click here to read a Bourdain interview.)— A.B.

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Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, by Lydia Davis (McSweeney's). Admiration for this latest story collection, dubbed "Montaigne in a minimalist mood," by the literati's darling meta-fictionist (Albert Mobilio, the New York Times). Davis "refuses to accept the limitations of the short story" (the San Francisco Chronicle). Her "deadpan" prose "turns philosophical snippets into fiction, as if she has written down what we were all on the verge of thinking ourselves" (Ben Marcus, Time). And even though she "admittedly works an exceedingly narrow waterfront," exploring the everyday, Davis "works it well, with a spirited intensity that belies the essentially pointillist nature of her art" (Mobilio). (Click here for Lydia Davis links, courtesy of McSweeney's.)— A.B.

Music

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Rock Steady, by No Doubt (Interscope). Middling reviews for the Orange County ska-rockers' new album. Though Billboard says it is "sure to convince doubters and win new fans," other critics remain skeptical. Musically, the record is a danceable, "beat-heavy quickie," and frontwoman Gwen Stefani eschews lyrical depth by tapping her "boy-crazy, party-hopping inner teen" (David Browne, Entertainment Weekly). Alas, the songs "often sound recycled from other vaguely familiar tunes" (Natalie Nichols, the Los Angeles Times). Even proponents like Browne, who calls Rock Steady the group's best album, say that "there's still something oddly flimsy" about No Doubt, which will "never be classified as one of pop's landmark bands." (Click here for a Bible-themed Gwen Stefani fan site.)—B.M.L.

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