The critics' take on I Am Sam, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Jan. 25 2002 3:43 PM

Kramer vs. Kramer Meets Rain Man

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Movies
I Am Sam (New Line). To enjoy this film, you "have to buy" Sean Penn as a mentally challenged father vying, with Michelle Pfeiffer as his attorney, to keep his 7-year-old daughter. Some reviewers do, saying Penn "really captures the physical qualities of the role" (Michael Wilmington, the Chicago Tribune). Others, like Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, complain that Penn just "waves his arms around like flippers" and speaks in "the goo-goo voice of a big, effeminate baby." Still, a few say that in spite of an "efficient cast," which includes Diane Weist and Mary Steenburgen (Rex Reed, the New York Observer), "the bargeloads of thorny reality the movie evades are stupefying" (Michael Atkinson, the Village Voice). The consensus: a cheesy Kramer vs. Kramer meets Rain Man. (Click here for the official Web site.)— A.B.

Storytelling (Fine Line). Esteem for writer-director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness), a "master of maxing embarrassment who dares the discomfited viewer to laugh at obviously incorrect spectacles of pain or humiliation" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice). About "the inevitable tendency of narrative to distort, exploit, and wound" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times), Storytelling is split into two tales: one film, called "Fiction," about an '80s writing student humiliated by her professor in both the classroom and the bedroom; the other, called "Nonfiction," about a filmmaker documenting the life of a high-school patsy. Most laud Solondz for an ear "preternaturally attuned" to the American idiom's "self-deluding pieties and scrambled certainties" (Scott). But the squeamish, like the New York Observer's Andrew Sarris, cry "misanthrope" and "misogynist" yet again. (Click here to read an interview with Solondz on his brand of black comedy.)—A.B.

CD cover

Music
I Am Sam (V2). This album of Beatles songs covered by contemporary artists like Eddie Vedder and Aimee Mann gets weakly positive reviews. As Rolling Stone's Barry Walters says, the Beatles' "original arrangements and renderings are so definitive that no one in pop's history has ever improved them." That's still the case with this collection, though "the songs are so well-crafted that ruining them is virtually impossible" (Walters). Most everyone stays "musically true to the original versions" (Lisa Hageman, CMJ), with exceptions including Grandaddy's cover of "Revolution" and Nick Cave's "Let It Be." But even if there are "few radical reinterpretations, these songs are like old friends" (Tom Sinclair, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here for the movie's Web site.)— B.M.L.

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The Great Divide, by Willie Nelson (Lost Highway). Critics echo the maxim that with Willie Nelson, "there's no middle ground: "You either dig [his] mellow growl as he talks his way through the music or you don't" (Dan Aquilante, the New York Post). Here, the "hell-raising performer from a lost age" offers "a heavily produced affair which finds him in the company of such upstarts as Kid Rock, Lee Ann Womack, and Bonnie Raitt" (The New Yorker) negotiating "themes of passionate rebellion, relationship discord, and the consequences of time." Some find the songwriting—by Bernie Taupin, Cyndi Lauper, and Rob Thomas, to name a few—"stellar" (Billboard). But others feel Nelson's "handsome but unvarnished" voice both "gets lost in the adult-contemporary production goop" and "never needed" this record's "young blood" (Pat Blashill, Rolling Stone). (Click here to read some of Blender's "33 Things You Should Know About Willie Nelson.")—A.B.

Book cover
Book cover

Books
Be My Knife, by David Grossman (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). Excellent reviews for the acclaimed Israeli's fifth novel. Told through letters, the story traverses a couple's virtually adulterous relationship—a romance that exists only in correspondence—that is an "experiment in long-distance intimacy" (the Economist). Critics see this as a case where inventive technique actually serves its story—"there's no device that's not entirely necessary" (Neil Gordon, the New York Times)—the scope of which engages "the reality of the possible, rather than the actual" (the Economist). Yet while Neil Gordon calls it "nothing less than a transformative work of art," the Washington Post's Chris Lehmann faults Grossman for allowing his male protagonist to dominate the book: "A memorable love affair requires at least one adult—and certainly two fully imagined characters." (Click here to listen to Grossman read an excerpt.)— A.B.

The Power of Babel, by John McWhorter (Times Books). Admiring reviews for this linguistic history by the Berkeley professor and New Republic contributor. "Aided by parallels with natural evolution, McWhorter shows us how the world's many dialects arose from a single Ur-tongue" and that "what we call a 'standard language' is in fact a dialect that has been anointed by people in power and by cultural circumstances" (Philip Herbst, Booklist). Others concur: With "passionate eloquence," McWhorter "makes readers glimpse the wonder of languages" (Polly Shulman, Newsday). And, for grammar sticklers, he even explains the birth of the no-double-negative rule: "The blame apparently goes back to the late 1700s, when one Lindley Murray wrote a treatise in which he carried over the Latin-language refusal to countenance double negatives into English" (the Washington Post). (Click here to read a McWhorter essay on his other area of expertise: race.)— A.B.

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.

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