The critics' take on Death to Smoochy, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
March 29 2002 2:24 PM

Williams Strikes Out

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Movies Death to Smoochy (Warner Bros.). Sour reviews for Danny DeVito's black comedy about a conniving kids' show host (Robin Williams) who tries to off his competition, a pink rhino named Smoochy (Edward Norton): "In all the annals of the movies," the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert writes, "few films have been this odd, inexplicable and unpleasant." The film plays like a "dyspeptic nightmare," and the "meanness of the gags keep souring the whole show" (Michael Wilmington, the Chicago Tribune). Even the camerawork fails: "[T]he entire picture looks as if it was shot with the surveillance camera from a 7-Eleven" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). (Click here to read David Edelstein's review and here to visit a "Death to Barney" site.)— B.C.

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Panic Room (Columbia). Tepid praise for David Fincher's new thriller. Jodie Foster plays a mother who tries to fend off burglars by hiding in a medieval-style panic room. The script gives Foster little to work with, and "the film's bad guys have even less dimension" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). And just about every critic notes that for a Fincher flick, the film has few twists. "A plethora of 'impossible' camera maneuvers notwithstanding," the Village Voice's J. Hoberman writes, "Fincher's new thriller is as conventional as Fight Club was provocative." (Click here to read David Edelstein's review and here to read about millionaires who install panic rooms in their Los Angeles mansions.)—B.C.

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The Rookie (Disney). Critics split on this based-on-a-true-story film that "combines two reliable formulas: The Little Team That Goes to State, and the Old-Timer Who Realizes His Youthful Dream" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Jimmy Morris (Dennis Quaid) is a 35-year-old high-school coach with aspirations of pitching in the majors. His team is, well, the Bad News Bears. Some critics say it "promotes the pleasant fantasy that the world is basically a decent place where events and people right themselves if given half a chance" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). Others refuse to be swayed by its charms: "The Rookie demonstrates that a skillful movie need not be good" (Ebert). (Click here to peruse the real-life Jimmy Morris' major-league stats.)—B.C.

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Books
Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, by David Brock (Crown). Critics are of two schools—believers and skeptics—about this 180-degree confessional-apology by the ex-American Spectator mudslinger responsible for, among other things, ripping apart Anita Hill. Noting that "[a]nyone wishing to understand America in the 1990s will have to read his book," Todd Gitlin writes in the Los Angeles Times that the account "overall rings with plausibility." So too for The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg, who calls it not only a "valuable book," but "an astounding account of fin-de-siecle Washington politics."New York Times correspondent Frank Bruni thinks otherwise: While Brock has switched camps, he "unavoidably taints his testimonial with his admission of a past willingness to twist facts," and therefore makes it "impossible" to know if he has "switched tactics" as well. (Click here for an interview with Brock.)— A.B.

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Music Modulate, by Bob Mould (Granary Music). "Bob Mould? Dance music? What's next, 'Pearl Jam Plays Polka'?" asks Eli Attie in his Washington Post review of this experimental CD from the "post-punk icon." Other critics echo this sentiment. Entertainment Weekly's Ethan Smith notes that for years "Mould has been a distinctive force, mixing punk rock's urgency with pop's melody." But this "collection of noise-pop tunes awash in quirky electronics" (Joan Anderman, the Boston Globe) is"a forgettable CD" (Smith). Even more disturbing, adds Attie, is that "for all the loops and sampled beats of songs like 'Quasar' and '180 Rain,' Mould hasn't fundamentally changed his songwriting style. One senses that there are great rock songs here, struggling to shed their dance-floor effluvia." (Click here to visit Mould's Web site, where you can listen to the album.)— A.B.

Land, by Patti Smith (Arista). "Three chords and a million words come together" on this "fine two-disc retrospective collection of [Smith's] 27 years in music," writes the New York Post's Dan Aquilante. That's the general consensus among other critics, although "[f]ew would dispute the unbridled vigor, spontaneity, or yearning of the set's second CD, comprising previously unreleased live tracks, demos, and obscurities," like a cover of Prince's "When Doves Cry" (Jim Farber, Entertainment Weekly). Others note that "Smith is one of the few remaining traces of bohemianism left on the contemporary rock scene" and that "[t]he impenetrable forward from Susan Sontag gives the package the official seal of intelligentsia approval" (Joel Selvin, the San Francisco Chronicle). That is, of course, if you don't consider Sontag loopy by now. (Click here for a compendium of Smith lyrics.)—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.

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

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