The critics' take on Big Trouble, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 5 2002 3:30 PM

National Catastrophe

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Movies
National Lampoon's Van Wilder (Artisan Entertainment). Reviews for this college-based "comedy" are very negative and very short: Critics spend as little time thinking about it as they have to. Several compare the movie negatively with its obvious model, Animal House. Updating the zany-frat-antics formula by adding jokes about bodily fluids and flatulence, the film is "a meandering succession of random gags" with "a gossamer wisp of a story line" (Dave Kehr, the New York Times). Writes Roger Ebert about a scene which involves dog semen and pastries, "I grew nostalgic for the lost innocence of a movie like American Pie, in which human semen found itself in a pie. ... Is it only a matter of time until the heroes of teenage grossout comedies are injecting turtle semen directly through their stomach walls?" (Click here to read about turtle semen.)— B.M.L.

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Big Trouble (Touchstone Pictures). Critics say this Florida crime caper, based on Dave Barry's first novel, is amusing if inconsequential. It's "silly fun" (Claudia Puig, USA Today), a "pleasant diversion" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times), a movie "you can't bring yourself to dislike" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). The film's release was pushed back six months because its plot (which is "so complicated even the people in it can't quite believe what's happening," says Turan) involves a plane hijacking, though several critics note that the scene in question is more darkly comic than unsettling: "The sight of a nuclear bomb making its way through an airport security check is even more hideously funny now," says Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum. (Click here to read Dave Barry's latest columns in the Miami Herald.)— B.M.L.

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High Crimes (20th Century Fox). The skills of Kiss the Girls (1997) co-stars Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman provide the only sparks in this "utterly conventional military courtroom thriller" (Robert Koehler, Variety). Judd is a high-powered defense attorney who finds out that her husband seems to have a secret past life, complete with a different name and charges of murdering a Salvadoran village while in the Marines. For Judd, it's "another undistinguished middle-tier thriller in a career that seems rapidly to be turning so beige you lose sight of it against the wall of the universe" (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post). The talented leads are better than this overplotted cliché-fest; they make a "muddled genre exercise seem a lot better than it is" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). (Click here for David Edelstein's Slate review and here for links to reviews of Judd and Freeman's previous team-up, Kiss the Girls.)—B.W.

Y Tu Mamá También (IFC Films). This Mexican film shattered box office records south of the border and garners magnificent reviews here. Directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón, who made Great Expectations in Hollywood, the film follows two well-to-do teen-agers and a beautiful Spanish woman who go in search of the perfect beach. A teen sex comedy to shame all American films of the genre, this is "sad, funny, sexy, and altogether marvelous" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). "Cuarón demonstrates how a simple teen comedy can suddenly blossom into a study of sexual mores, a Mexican political allegory, a song of lamentation—and still be breezy and funny and sexy as hell" (David Edelstein, Slate). (Click here for the rest of Edelstein's rave review.)—B.W.

Clockstoppers (Paramount Pictures). This genial yet unimaginative Nickelodeon-produced kids' action flick gets ho-hum reviews. A teen-ager uses his father's invention to stop time and then has to use the technology to stop a sinister high-tech millionaire with the last name Gates. "I have no idea how they came up with the name of Gates," winks the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert. Lead Jesse Bradford, of Bring It On and Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill, is good, but the movie is "benign but forgettable" (Michael O'Sullivan, the Washington Post). Everyone laments how little fun the film has with the time-stopping technology: "The movie gives its characters virtually nothing to do with their newfound power" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here to read about an evil plan by a coincidentally named sinister high-tech millionaire named Gates.)—B.W.

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Book cover
Book cover

Books Everything's Eventual, by Stephen King (Scribner). Many agree this new King collection "might well have been titled Everything but the Kitchen Sink, since it includes transcripts of audiobooks, four strong New Yorker stories that render the line between genre and literary fiction intriguingly irrelevant, a loooong Dark Tower prequel (fun for fans, deeply skippable for the rest of us), and even an e-tale (the much-downloaded 'Riding the Bullet')" (Mark Harris, Entertainment Weekly). But others carefully note that "there are stories that, frankly, qualified as labor to get through" (Deirdre Donahue, USA Today). The New York Times' Janet Maslin valiantly critiques the New Yorker selections as "correspondingly lukewarm"; "[a]dapting his style to that magazine's rarefied taste in fiction, King lets his tales become more self-consciously meaningful and writerly." (Click here to visit King's ever-controversial Web site.)— A.B. The House of Blue Mangoes, by David Davidar (HaperCollins). Pedestrian reviews for this heady   debut novel by the CEO of Penguin India. A "Tolstoyan social saga" (Alice K. Turner, the Washington Post), the book "tracks three generations of a Christian family whose fortunes are buffeted by the tumult of [India's] history." But even though the "breadth of information is impressive," the "lyricism of Davidar's prose is blunted by the didacticism of these learned disquisitions" (Akash Kapur, the New York Times). "If only he had as much enthusiasm for the humans who fill his novel, [it] might not feel as adrift as its recurring metaphor, the blue mango, which is at times possessed with a 'monstrous flaw' or is the tastiest thing around, or, perhaps, stands for nothing at all" (Ben Ehrenreich, the Los Angeles Times). (Click here to read an excerpt.)— A.B.
The Siege, by Helen Dunmore (Grove). Excellent notices for this historical novel set during the siege of Leningrad and centered on a 23-year-old woman living underground. Critics call it "[a]n affecting, devastating work" (Alyssa Lee, Entertainment Weekly) that "excels on two levels, capturing the near annihilation of a young woman and a legendary city" (Joy Press, the Village Voice). "[A] novel of psychological delicacy and poetic strength as well as a meditation on suffering and endurance," its "imaginative richness lies in this implicit question: In dire physical circumstances, is it possible to have an inner life? The answer seems to be that no survival is possible without one. In Helen Dunmore's hands, this epic subject assumes a lyrical honesty that sometimes wrenches but more often lifts the spirit" (Frances Taliaferro, the Washington Post). (Click here to read an interview with Dunmore on the craft of historical fiction.)— A.B.

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Music
Are You Passionate? by Neil Young (Reprise). Backed by Booker T and the MGs as well as Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, the latest from Young finds him exploring a '60s soul sound, to mostly positive notices. The Financial Times' Ludovic Hunter-Tilney nominates Young for "Most Tireless Rock Performer in the Over-50 Age Bracket," and the Boston Globe's Steve Morse says Passionate"offers a vivid reminder of Young's multiple gifts for writing topical songs, love ballads, spiritually uplifting message tunes, and electrified rock tracks that race down the highway with abandon." On the other hand, some feel that "Young, again unfortunately, doesn't quite match up to his earlier self" (Joe Heim, the Washington Post). (Click here for a Web site dedicated to legendary soul label Stax Records, for which Booker T and the MGs were the in-house backing band.)— B.W.

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.

Ben Wasserstein is an associate editor at New York magazine.

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