The critics' take on Vanilla Sky, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Dec. 11 2001 2:47 PM

Vanilla Cruise

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The Royal Tenenbaums (Touchstone). The critics split on director Wes Anderson's third effort, a dysfunctional-family comedy starring Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, and others. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane writes, "The whole tone of the film is like Paltrow's eyes: a steady gleam, rimmed in darkness, and only a blink away from mad." The critics that like the film call it "sweet and funny, doggedly oddball if bordering precious" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice.) For the naysayers, it's a bit too twee: "Whimsy—and Mr. Anderson's inability to refrain from admiring his own handiwork—triumphs in the end" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). (Click here to visit the film's official Web site and here to read David Edelstein's Slate review.)—B.C.

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Vanilla Sky (Paramount). Most critics agree with USA Today's Mike Clark, who calls this Cameron Crowe-directed, Tom Cruise-starring thriller a "gorgeously mounted career stretch gone haywire." A remake of the 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes, the movie begins as a straightforward story about a rich Manhattanite before taking "a giant, awkward leap into allegorical science fiction" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times) that many find confusing. "You are now in mega-weird territory, and, frankly, you're on your own," writes Desson Howe in the Washington Post. Some suggest that Crowe is out of his element, "too warm a director to successfully master or even transform this deeply weird material" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). Cruise earns praise for his performance, but several critics attack his co-star and love interest Penélope Cruz for clumsy line-readings "just one step above phonetic pronunciation" (Holden). (Click here to read David Edelstein's review in Slate, and click here for information about Open Your Eyes, which also starred Cruz.)—B.M.L.

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Not Another Teen Movie (Columbia Pictures). This Scary Movie-style parody gets terrible, even angry, reviews. "If there is a Hell, Not Another Teen Movie will be playing for all eternity on every screen there" (Rita Kempley, the Washington Post). The plot is a mix of She's All That and Pretty in Pink, with "parodies" of every other teen film thrown in; the movie has a "tendency to mistake mere bad taste for outrageousness, and plain referentiality for satire" (Dennis Harvey, Variety). A.O. Scott of the New York Times is the film's lone defender, calling it "happy, nasty and frequently hilarious," but most critics agree that this is another awful movie. (Click here for memorable quotes from the parody genre standard-bearer, Airplane!)—B.W.

Project Greenlight

Television
Project Greenlight (HBO, Sunday, 10 p.m. EST). Raves for HBO's 12-part docu-series about indie filmmaking. Produced by and starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Hollywood heavy Chris Moore, the show begins as the team wraps up its script-writing competition, which culled three screenplays from thousands and gave the winner, Pete Jones, a $1 million Miramax budget to direct his film, Stolen Summer. "Complete with power struggles, cranky crew members, creative compromises, and long, cola-drenched meetings" (Matthew Gilbert, the Boston Globe), Greenlight is "more than just a television project for its creators," says the New York Times'Bill Carter. "It's a means to achieve a personal goal; opening up the film business to true outsiders." Critics' only complaint: The project doesn't truly function "outside the Hollywood power structure" (David Zurawick, the Baltimore Sun). (Click here to visit the show's Web site and read the screenplays that didn't make the cut.)— A.B.

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Music Goddess in the Doorway, by Mick Jagger (Virgin). Mixed takes on the 58-year-old rock icon's latest, which sold over 68,000 copies in the United States its first week out. The music is "generally as soft and slick as pumpkin pie, with Jagger's long-suffering voice, which still has a lot of charm, blanketed in 21st century synthesized beats and airy piano lines" (Benjamin Nugent, Time). And even though the album offers "big-league songwriting, A-list guest stars (Bono, Pete Townshend) and, of course, Mick's wily-as-ever vocals," there's "little to suggest that Jagger, never big on introspection, is taking a good, hard look at himself" (Devin Gordon, Newsweek). Yet the New York Times'Anthony DeCurtis disagrees completely, calling Goddess "a mature, musically adventurous record" that meaningfully "explores themes of romantic disenchantment, erotic longing and the inexorable passage of time." (Click here to watch the video of "God Gave Me Everything" on MTV.com.)— A.B.

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Book
Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens (Basic Books). Critics react stalwartly to this "sequence of characteristically acerbic essays" that flaunts a hatred of "human passivity" outsized enough to "conflate serenity with submission" (Alexander Starr, the New York Times). "Letters shows Hitchens' best and worst sides: He makes entertaining mincemeat of self-satisfied politicians, and shreds received ideas and media-spun consensus with a fearlessness that is invaluable in our mealymouthed punditocracy. But there are times when that innate oppositional streak seems purely knee-jerk" (Joy Press, the Village Voice). Reviewers, nevertheless, appreciate the conviction in Hitchens' prose: "He has a beautiful quality of obsession, a driving sense of injury that cannot be appeased by success or bought off or cowed into timorous calculation" (Lee Siegel, the Los Angeles Times). (Click here for a Hitchens interview about Mother Theresa.)— A.B.

Best of 2001 Books Lists. This year's lists reflect the characters of their cities. The Chicago Tribune's is terse and unsurprising, composed of 11 tomes by acclaimed authors like Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Alice Munro (Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage), Louis Menand (The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America), and Dan Choan (Among the Missing), a National Book Award finalist. The Los Angeles Times' reads loose and people-friendly via long separate lists of good fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, as well as fun reads for children, mystery hounds, and, strangely enough, readers from "the West." The Washington Post's is full of one-liners, split into fiction and non-, and complete enough to interest politicians with less of a taste for reading than they might admit. And the New York Times' comes off wise but on-guard: Including only nine books, it offers predictable choices (a few of the Tribune's famous picks, W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, David McCollough's John Adams, Oliver Sacks'Uncle Tungsten), while spotlighting two quality works by one very experienced author (Paula Fox, Borrowed Finery) and one young and gifted one (Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days). (Click here to see what Slate picked as the Best Books of 2001.)— A.B.

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Music
Cocky, by Kid Rock (Atlantic). Critics say the Detroit rap-rocker's latest is more of the "Neanderthal rap-boogie" (David Sprague, Rolling Stone) that made him famous. Some find his "crotch-grabbing braggadocio" (Sprague) strangely entertaining—"it takes a sort of odd genius to flaunt boorish behavior with such good-natured panache," says Entertainment Weekly's Rob Brunner—but one-dimensional. And "when he does stop talking about himself, he's got little to say," complains Steve Hochman in the Los Angeles Times. Almost everyone mocks Rock's forays into ballad-writing, with several critics singling out the line "I believe we can make it through the winds of change" for ridicule. (Click here for the Onion's take on Kid Rock and MP3 piracy.)—B.M.L.

Adam Baer is a culture critic for the New York Sun and contributor to the New York Times Book Review, Travel + Leisure, and Slate, among other publications.

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter.

Ben Mathis-Lilley edits the Slatest. Follow @Slatest on Twitter.

Ben Wasserstein is an associate editor at New York magazine.

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