The critics' take on The Sum of All Fears, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 31 2002 2:19 PM

Ho-Hum Fears

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Movies
The Sum of All Fears
(Paramount Pictures). So-so reviews for the fourth screen adventure of Tom Clancy's venerable Jack Ryan, here played by Ben Affleck (following Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford), who "simply lacks the gravitas for the role" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). The film's detonation of a nuclear device in Baltimore—a plot point spoiled by every critic—is timely and frightening, but overall the movie, with its neo-Nazi evildoers and spy-movie clichés, is too Hollywood. In the end, "[t]he inadequacies of The Sum of All Fears, in the light of Sept. 11, suggest that if the political thriller is to remain a vital genre, a new, toughened-up realism is necessary" (Holden). (Click here to read Slate's "Culturebox" on Sum's politically correct villains.)— B.W.

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Undercover Brother (Universal). Moderately good reviews for this blaxploitation parody of the dumb-comedy type that critics usually love to hate. The most common criticism of the movie is that its base humor is too reliant on "prechewed racial clichés that have already been through the corporate stand-up-comedy mill" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly), but proponents like the New York Times' A.O. Scott (who calls the film "winningly silly") and the Los Angeles Times' Jan Stuart argue that the tiredness of the stereotypes is a comment on the ridiculousness of racial divisions in America. Stuart thinks the movie is about the way Shaft and other '70s celebrations of black culture led to whites "embracing their inner blackness" and "how ambivalently many blacks feel about that in return." (Click here for the movie's official site.)— B.M.L.

The Sleepy Time Gal (C-100). Applause quiets yawns for Sundance favorite Christopher Münch's third film, a "bittersweet, elegiac chamber piece in which Jacqueline Bisset, in a stirring performance, plays a terminally ill woman feeling an urgent need to connect with the daughter she gave up for adoption" (Gene Seymour, Newsday). Most critics call it "delicate, haunting and sultry" (Seymour): "Münch's characters are given to a certain rapt, unwieldy thoughtfulness, and accordingly, his films cultivate a mood of almost trancelike introspection" (Dennis Lim, the Village Voice). Yet a few detractors say the plot is full of "too-convenient coincidences" and the script is "best left to cable TV" (V.A. Musetto, the New York Post). (Read an interview with Münch.)—A.B.

Elling (First Look). Rarely does a film simultaneously appeal to the New York Times' brash Stephen Holden and irritate the rapscallion Village Voice. But this Norwegian dramedy and 2001 Oscar nominee, about an odd couple of released psychiatric patients trying to make it on the outside, does both while garnering general acclaim. Lauded for its "hope and faith in human resilience" (Meghan Turner, the New York Post), Holden says Elling evades being "too cute" because the acting has a "naturalistic precision" and because the film avoids "the diagnostic clichés of contemporary psychiatry." But the Voice's Michael Atkinson claims the "predictable soaper" avoids important issues and is "[n]otable only as the unseen Norwegian nominee." Boys will be boys. (Visit the Elling Web site.)—A.B.

The Next Big Thing (Castle Hill). Little love for this debut satire by director P.J. Posner in which "the work of an unsuccessful New York artist (Chris Eigeman) starts selling when it's attributed to a fictitious identity" (The New Yorker). Most critics think it "settles for 'glib superficialities' by poking tiresome fun at nonrepresentational art, as when the 'Whitley' Biennial organizers spout meaningless shibboleths ('profoundly nihilistic,' 'demonstrably nonexclusive')" (Ed Park, the Village Voice). And despite receiving praise by Lawrence Van Gelder of the New York Times ("deftly satisfying and comically coherent"), the consensus is that "it all feels like it could have been funnier, more biting, and, hence, more memorable" (New York). (Read the Slate "Diary" of Whit Stillman, Eigeman's sometime director.)—A.B.

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The Importance of Being Earnest (Miramax). Second-rate reviews for Oliver Parker's adaptation of the famed Oscar Wilde farce. Many critics feel that "[i]n unwisely attempting to one-up Wilde's perfectly knitted lines, Parker unravels the narrative and undermines the rhythm of the playwright's commentary" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). Some of the performances win acclaim: "[Rupert] Everett and [Colin] Firth's ruefully affectionate, roughhousing chemistry feels decades lived-in; [Reese] Witherspoon's matter-of-fact daftness keeps [her wistful character] tethered to earth, and you will know Judi Dench by the trail of dead" (Jessica Winter, the Village Voice). The main problem: the addition of "dreadful 'fantasy' sequences" (David Ansen, Newsweek). (Click here for a hypertext-search project based on the play's script.)— A.B.

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Late Marriage

(Magnolia). Unanimous acclaim for this "taut, remarkable work" (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker) about an aging Israeli grad student who "must decide whether to marry a young virgin selected by his parents or to break with tradition and pursue his love for a divorcee with a 6-year-old daughter" (Mark Caro, the Chicago Tribune). Critics agree director Dover Kosashvili's "restrained camera" renders it "superbly brash, raunchy, and confrontational" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice): "The graphic sexual connection between the [forbidden lovers], while striking in its realism, is no more astonishing than the relaxed, natural way in which Kosashvili balances comedy and misery, the independent nature of eros, and the obligations of family" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here for the film's Web site.)— A.B.
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Music Veni Vidi Vicious

, by the Hives (Reprise). Much critical love for the Swedish band's first big American release, which consists of 28 minutes of "punk's snottiness," "Detroit rock's raw power," and "stylized blues freak-outs" (Jenny Eliscu, Rolling Stone). Reviewers recognize that the Hives are very similar to a number of bands, from the Stooges to the White Stripes, but as Eliscu says, "balls-out garage rock is evergreen." To their classic sound the quintet adds amusing touches like quirky song titles ("The Hives Declare Guerre Nucleaire") and an ironically retro back-story (the bass player, for example, says his name is Dr. Matt Destruction) that "assault the whole notion that rock has to be humorless to be real" (Robert Hilburn, the Los Angeles Times). In The New Yorker, Ben Greenman calls the album "the most exuberant and powerful rock and roll in recent memory" and points out that the band is currently touring America. His recommendation: "Get stung." (Click here for the band's official site. Buy.)— B.M.L.
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Books
Shakey: Neil Young's Biography, by Jimmy McDonough (Random House). Decidely mixed notices for this so-called "authorized" biography, which Young eventually tried to kill. The San Francisco Chronicle sums them up nicely: The book, "long overdue and hog-tied by a skirmish between the author and his subject, is a maddening, beguiling portrait of an elusive maverick"; "named for one of Young's many aliases," it's "a glorious mess." Others reviewers call it "exhaustive, quarrelsome and sometimes maddening"; burdened by "lengthy interviews between biographer and subject" in which "McDonough's persistent confrontations feel hysterical, even a little shrill" (Rick Moody, the New York Times); and "banal rock-star stuff, certainly nothing [Young's] fans don't know" (Marc Weingarten, Slate). (Click here for Weingarten's assessment of the book and McDonough's plight.)— A.B.

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Sin Killer, by Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster). Reviews for this latest period piece from the author of Lonesome Dove depend on the literary quality of their publication. This first volume of a tetralogy about the "Berrybenders, a comically dysfunctional British family of aristocrats" on a Missouri river expedition in 1832 (Joe Heim, People), scores with the New York Daily News' Bill Bell as a "respectful frontier burlesque" that "neatly harnesses slapstick and scholarship." But the New York Times' authoritative Michiko Kakutani disagrees, calling it "a perfunctory, highly formulaic love story that simply uses the frontier as a backdrop for its characters' misadventures" that "shows McMurtry not at his storytelling best but skating along on automatic pilot." (Click here for an archive of McMurtry reviews. Buy.)— 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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