The critics' take on Mr. Deeds, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 28 2002 5:17 PM

Bad In-Deeds

Movies
Mr. Deeds(Columbia Pictures). Unsurprisingly, critics pan this "idiot variation on Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly) starring Adam Sandler as a suddenly wealthy small-town naif. The movie's "pacing and direction are so lackadaisical that nominal professionals like Steve Buscemi and John Turturro make as little impact as non-pros like John McEnroe and the Rev. Al Sharpton" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). But critics can't work up the energy to care: "There's not even enough here to get mad at" (Turan). Best pun in a review, on Sandler's character's tendency to punch rude people in the face: "Instead of Capra-corn, this is Capra-cuffs" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times).—E.T.

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Lovely & Amazing (Lions Gate). Praise for writer-director Nicole Holofcener's sophomore effort starring the snappy Catherine Keener and Brenda Blethyn, in strong company. A look at two L.A. sisters and their mother, critics say the film "avoid[s] the ghetto of sentimental chick-flicks by treating female follies with a satirical style." The actors are "so generous in their interplay that, as an ensemble, they provide their own subtext" (Andrew Sarris, the New York Observer). And Lovely"involves us because it is so incisive, so bleakly amusing about how we go about our lives" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). Only one protest: "As smart and observant as it is, it doesn't really go anywhere" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). (Visit the Web site.)— A.B.

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Harvard Man (Cowboy). Appreciation for this morality play starring Adrian Grenier, Buffy's Sarah Michelle Gellar, and indie stalwart Eric Stoltz. About a Harvard basketball star on the edge, critics say the film has "everything you could ever want from" director James Toback (Two Girls and a Guy): "lurid sex, shocking excess" and an "out-of-nowhere thoughtfulness that's not put on" but "real." "Grenier is a find" and "[this] should mark Gellar's entrance into full-fledged [adult roles]" (Mick LaSalle, the San Francisco Chronicle). Despite a few naysayers, most call it a film with "a caffeinated, sloppy brilliance" that proves "Toback is one of the few American filmmakers willing to risk looking ridiculous in the pursuit of seriousness" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). (View the Web site.)— A.B.

Hey Arnold! The Movie(Paramount). Poor reviews for the latest Nickelodeon cartoon to go big-screen. There are two major problems. One is the plot, which rejects the TV series' "fanciful, gently whimsical treatment of down-to-earth matters" in favor of a standard tale about saving the neighborhood from a greedy developer (Gene Seymour, Newsday). The other is the blurry animation. "This may be the first cartoon ever to look as if it were being shown on the projection television screen of a sports bar," writes Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times. Most critics seem to agree with the Boston Globe's standard mediocre-kids'-movie assessment: "Will kids like it? Of course, they will. Adults, by contrast, are advised to bring a flashlight and a book." (Click here for the TV show's official site.)—B.M.L.

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Sunshine State (Sony Pictures Classics). Critics say John Sayles' (Lone Star) tale of South Florida is "beautifully written" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times) and full of "potent" acting (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times) but in the end "raises more issues than it can comfortably digest" (David Ansen, Newsweek). Holden thinks the plot's mix of family drama and political commentary succeeds: "[B]y the end of the film you feel you've … tasted some salty essence of our national life." But most reviewers disagree, even though they find the movie's ambition admirable. Writes Turan, "Even if it pushes its agenda too forcefully, this remains a film about something, one that attempts and often achieves a level of connection and concern. That's too uncommon a scenario to be dismissed." (Read about Sunshine State writer-director Sayles.)— B.M.L.

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Books
Married: A Fine Predicament, by Anne Roiphe (Basic). Scoffs for this novelist's nonfiction musings on tying the knot. Critics seethe at Roiphe's "distinctly retro—dare one say unfeminist?" conception of matrimony as both "the only cure for the loneliness that ails us" and "one bitter pill" (Jennifer Howard, the Washington Post). "Allusions" to the tribulations of Emma Bovary and Bill Clinton do nothing more than "prove the author probably had a liberal arts education" (Martin Levin, the Weekly Standard), and many find Roiphe "more interesting" on her own life (Margaret Van Dagens, the New York Times). Fatal flaws? A "lack of focus" and "and some truly loopy writing" including ruminations on the potential virtues of arranged marriages (Howard). (Read a chapter.)— A.B.

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The Sexual Life of Catherine M., by Catherine Millet, translated by Adriana Hunter (Grove). Harsh American reviews for last year's French nonfiction sensation about a successful intellectual woman's excessive and raucous sexual escapades. Reviewers call the translation "careless and in places incoherent" (Judith Thurman, The New Yorker) and find the theme paradoxically impotent: "Catherine M.'s dirtiest secret is not that this haute provocateur likes it any which way, but that she's unable to achieve a satisfying climax of insight" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). Other grievances: "Millet doesn't provide" a chronology (Joy Press, the Village Voice); "[t]here isn't a single reference to AIDS" (Thurman); "[t]he tone is Proust-wannabe, the behavior suggestive of a sexual attention deficit disorder" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times); and Millet's "hubris" says "she even seems to be courting, like her namesake [St. Catherine of Siena], a kind of martyrdom" (Thurman). (Read an excerpt if you're legal. Buy The Sexual Life of Catherine M.)— A.B.

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Music
Nellyville, by Nelly (Universal Records). Mostly positive reviews for the St. Louis rapper's follow-up to the 8 million-selling Country Grammar (2000): "If you like your rap loose and funny, Nelly's the man for you" (Tom Sinclair, Entertainment Weekly). It's party-happy beats and singsongy vocals again, though the album also includes a battle track dissing rap pioneer KRS-One (who once criticized Nelly as too pop). Using a rarely seen tire-based metaphor, Steve Jones of USA Today concludes, "it's clear he's not about to fix something that's not broken. For now, the bus to Nellyville is cruising on platinum rims." (Read Slate's take on Nelly and shop for rims.)—B.W.

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Live on Brighton Beach, by Fatboy Slim (Ministry of Sound/MCA). A weak mix of reviews for this latest collection of house music (most of it the property of others) from U.K. DJ Norman Cook. "Recorded last July at a free beach party (for 40,000 people) in southern England" (Billboard), "inspired moments play tag with repetitive stretches in which the beat simply goes on … and on" (Neva Chonin, the San Francisco Chronicle). This inspires Rolling Stone's Barry Walters to review more than just the album. He writes: "The more that dance music insists on minimalism, the more tired it gets."Live "suggests [Cook's] reliance on instantly gratifying loops and smart samples is finally growing stale." (Learn more about Fatboy Slim.)— A.B.

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Untouchables, by Korn (Sony). Assessments of the latest album from the nu-metal pioneers show a clear critical split over the genre's worth, running the gamut from "unlistenable" (Dave Ferman, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram) to "amazingly entertaining" (Edna Gunderson, USA Today). Reviewers like Ferman, Entertainment Weekly's Evan Serpick and the Washington Post's David Segal bring up the usual criticisms of rap-rock: The music is ugly and unimaginative, the lyrics repetitive and self-important. Fans of the record find lead singer Jonathan Davis' introspection compelling and say the band's sound is becoming more and more "sweet and radio-friendly" (Kevin Boyce, CMJ) while retaining its trademark "bottom-heavy gnashing" (Jon Pareles, the New York Times). Writes Pareles: "Now that it has accepted melody as central, Korn reveals new skills and ideas in every song." (Listen to a BBC documentary on nu-metal.)— B.M.L.

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Bunkka, by Paul Oakenfold (Maverick). Solid reviews for the first album of original material by the well-known DJ, an "exceptionally tight" (Kevin Boyce, CMJ) collection of tunes that mix techno with pop supplied by appearances from an "impressive" (Chris Salmon, Time Out) array of guests including Ice Cube, Nelly Furtado, and—as all reviewers mention but none explain—Hunter S. Thompson. Critics praise the album for providing authentic techno while keeping things interesting by exploring the "many subgenres of the dance world" (Steve Baltin, the Los Angeles Times). "The album works because Oakenfold has abandoned the stylistic limits of trance yet brought the genre's tuneful oomph," writes Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone. (Click here for Oakenfold's official site. Buy.)— B.M.L.

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Blazing Arrow, by Blackalicious (MCA). Supportive hollas for this major-label debut from the Bay Area's best indie rappers. Critics call it "ambitious, erudite" (Pat Blashill, Rolling Stone), and "the most mature work" the duo's ever made—"confident, coherent, cohesive" (Oliver Wang, LA Weekly): "[Chief] Xcel incorporates crisp drums, heavy piano and moody keyboards into his beats, while [Gift of] Gab's abstract ruminations on life are often thought-provoking" (Soren Baker, the Los Angeles Times). Yet even more meaningful is the notion that Blackalicious is "continuing to broaden rap music" on account of their "fearless blend of chunky rhythms, uncommon time signatures, and lyrics both provocative and playful" (Renee Graham, the Boston Globe). Take that, Shady. (Watch the duo's new video. Buy.)— A.B.

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Ralph Stanley, by Ralph Stanley (DMZ). Thanks to his appearance on the multiplatinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, the bluegrass veteran's latest album gets mainstream attention, and reviewers like what they hear. Critics are most impressed by the 75-year-old's voice, described as "amazingly intense" (Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone), "primal" (Randy Lewis, the Los Angeles Times), and "downright biblical" (Larry Katz, the Boston Herald). They also appreciate his arrangements—which favor a "deliberate and stately style" over the "high-speed instrumental flash" preferred by many other bluegrass artists (Katz)—and the gravity he brings to traditional songs with "desperate hill themes" like "romantic faithlessness, murder, and heavenly redemption" (Alana Nash, Entertainment Weekly). Says Sheffield: "Anyone who loved O Brother should find even headier musical pleasures on Ralph Stanley." (Click here to read about the surprising success of the O Brother soundtrack. Buy.)— B.M.L.

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Italian Platinum, by Silkworm (Touch and Go). "Ten years and seven albums after its first full-length release," writes Entertainment Weekly's Rob Brunner, "this underappreciated Seattle band puts out yet another modestly masterful set of thoughtful, unflashy guitar rock." Other critics agree, saying Silkworm "continues to hammer the stake in the ground in the DMZ between classic-, country- and post-rock with an assured swagger" (Chris Handyside, Rolling Stone). Even Village Voice rock authority Robert Christgau echoes the praise, calling the album, somewhat philosophically, "Pavement for a diminished millennium": "low-end in every way—fewer guitar coruscations, vocal twitters, obscure witticisms, flights of fancy, and cash receipts." That means it's good, right? (Listen to a song from the album. 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.

Eliza Truitt, a former editor at Slate, now works as a wedding photographer in Seattle.

Ben Wasserstein is an associate editor at New York magazine.