The critics' take on Murder by Numbers, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 19 2002 2:58 PM

Never Mind the Bullock

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Movies Murder by Numbers (Warner Bros.). Murder by Numbers is mostly murdered by critics, though some feel it's above the police procedural thriller standard. Sandra Bullock stars as a tough-cookie cop trying to outwit two Nietzsche-quoting, absinthe-swilling teen-agers who thought they committed the perfect murder. Some critics think the film is really two movies, with the high-school killer half being more interesting than the Bullock part. Still, Bullock gets excellent notices, though "not even the actress' soulfulness can save the generic climax" (David Edelstein, Slate), which is only the last of the film's "big, dumb concessions to convention" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). At best, Murder by Numbers"turns potentially forgettable formula into something strangely diverting" (Desson Howe, the Washington Post). (Click here for info on the Leopold and Loeb trial, a real-life instance of youths committing murder as an intellectual game, and here for the rest of Edelstein's review in Slate.)— B.W.

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The Scorpion King (Universal). This King has no power over critics, who think that the debut of WWF wrestler the Rock in a starring role is "[d]ull, but not unspeakably so" (Mike Clark, USA Today). The Rock plays an assassin in pre-Pyramids Egypt who teams up with a motley crew to rescue the known world, "all 40 square miles of it" (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post), from a warlord named Memnon, whose haircut is widely mocked. The special effects are laughably bad, with the exception of "the ones that keep the breasts of the many nubile maidens covered to within one centimeter of the PG-13 guidelines" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). (Click here for the Rock's loud official site.)— B.W.

Frailty(Lions Gate Films). Critics say this tale of Texas ax murder goes beyond the call of horror-flick duty to become "a meditation on faith of several different kinds" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). Director Bill Paxton also stars as a devoted father who involves his two boys in murders he thinks are ordered by God; the most "truly disturbing material" in Frailty is the effect of the killings on the kids (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). One dissenting reviewer is Newsday's John Anderson, who bizarrely picks on the film's child actors. Calling one of them "no Haley Joel Osment" and saying the other makes a "bowling trophy seem like Laurence Olivier," he suggests that Paxton's ax-wielding character "might have employed said tool on his sons." (Click here if you, like John Anderson, need anger-management counseling.)—B.M.L.

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Human Nature (Fine Line). Few affirmative grunts for this latest from offbeat screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich). The farce joins a repressed scientist (Tim Robbins), a very hairy writer (Patricia Arquette), and an ape-man (Rhys Ifans) in order to explore the "happy medium between natural impulses and the inhibitions of civilization" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Ebert thinks it just barely works: "If it tried to do anything more, it would fail and perhaps explode, but at this level of manic whimsy, it is just about right." Yet, in the manner of other critics, the Washington Post's Stephen Hunter asserts the "story is less a drama than a diagram, with each character calculated to represent a certain value in the nature/nurture dynamic," whose "symbols are so heavily wired into the equation that it becomes unwieldy and unspontaneous." (Follow your instincts and click here for the film's official Web site.)— A.B.

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Books Sea Glass, by Anita Shreve (Little, Brown & Co.). Mixed reviews for this romantic pressure-cooker from Oprah favorite Anita Shreve. Seduced by her protagonists and their setting (New England newlyweds on the cusp of the Depression), critics laud Shreve's "lyrical language, her characteristic understanding of the human heart, [and] the insightful way she uses historic events as the backdrop for her intimate personal story" (Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today). David Willis McCullough in the New York Times singles out Shreve's direct storytelling: Her characters "reveal who they are through their actions, with the author—who writes with admirable economy—rarely having to point a finger or underline the obvious." But Zofia Smardz in the Washington Post disagrees, claiming the second half of the "melodrama" nearly undermines the work: Shreve's "writing goes flabby" and "the dialogue collapses into tin-ear colloquies." (Click here to read an excerpt.)— A.B. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Though reviewers find its conclusion reductive—that potentially dangerous scientific advancements like fertilized-egg screening, germ-line engineering, and cloning should be regulated—most brand this book's scope and thoughtful approach "indispensable" (Andrew Stark, the Wall Street Journal). Fukuyama's chief problem, critics say, is that he seeks "moral agreement" on the basis of the "marshy terrain" of human nature: "Interfering with our nature is wrong, [Fukuyama] tells us. But humans, typically, behave badly. Ought it not then be our duty to try to alter genes so as to behave better?" (the Economist). Of course, Stark writes, "Fukuyama's intuition remains a sound one." But "[t]hat doesn't mean that we shouldn't proceed along some of these biotech tracks"; it simply suggests "we should do so slowly, and with caution" (Stark). (Click here for Fukuyama's informative Web site.)— A.B. Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin). The splash this debut novel made is considerable: The 25-year-old Foer reportedly sold it for $500,000 after an industry bidding war, an excerpt ran in The New Yorker, and the book was recently optioned to Hollywood. And most critics bite on the lure of this multinarrative metafiction whose protagonist bears the same name as the author. Based on a trip the author took to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, the book wows critics: Francine Prose writes in the New York Times that "[n]ot since Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio." But Atlantic Monthly's Brooke Allen—perhaps Foer's only detractor—disagrees: "[T]he too frequent flights of lyricism stink of affectation." In the end the "Big Subject of the past century—the Holocaust—proves to be too big a subject for his undeveloped talent." (Click here for an interview with the author.)— A.B.

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The Company: A Novel of the CIA, by Robert Littell (Overlook). Unanimous acclaim for this "extremely long, often brilliant, sometimes maddening and always readable portrait of the CIA's Cold War adventures from 1950 to 1995. … Besides being hugely entertaining, The Company is a serious look at how our nation exercised power, for good and ill, in the second half of the 20th century" (Patrick Anderson, the Washington Post). "Littell understands the slippery moral slope on which all covert activity rests" (Booklist). "And in addition to being a good psychologist who goes to the heart of the characters in terms of motive and illusions, Littell is a terrific anthropologist, providing the voyeuristic reader a good semblance of how an organization such as the CIA works from within" (Alan Cheuse, the Chicago Tribune). (Click here to read an excerpt.)— 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.

Ben Wasserstein is an associate editor at New York magazine.

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