Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 9 2003 4:52 PM

Don Your Snark, Get Set, Go!

Critics savage Eddie Murphy, Neil LaBute, and Heidi Julavits in SJ's first All-Snark Edition.

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Daddy Day Care (Columbia). Where have you gone, Eddie Murphy? Film critics turn their snark-filled eyes to you. "Do not lament what he's become," advises the Dallas Observer's Robert Wilonsky, reasoning that Murphy's recent years as a stale self-parody are now preferable to this new turn as "a 42-year-old Bill Cosby, selling multiplex Coke with a smile while pushing cinematic Pudding Pops down our throats." The Washington Post's Desson Howe thinks the actor's choice of "likability (to the point of innocuousness) over outrageous antics" is just dandy for parents seeking a night out. But the Los Angeles Times' Manohla Dargis is less content, bitterly lamenting the comic's decline. Most reviewers agree with the Onion's Nathan Rabin, who shrugs at this "big-screen sitcom so sleepy and juvenile it might as well come with its own nap break." (Buy tickets to Daddy Day Care.)

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The Shape of Things (Focus). As ever, Neil LaBute gets under critical skins like an itchy pollen. The cynical director "assails superficiality in an intellectually superficial way," rails the Associated Press' Ben Nuckols, who adds that despite Gretchen Mol's excellent performance, the film "starts with a gag and concludes with a sneer." A.O. Scott calls LaBute's darkness risible, pinpointing the director's method: "Cobble together a preposterous moral outrage and then wave it in front of our faces, asking us to believe that it is a window, or even a mirror." And in Salon, Andrew O'Hehir first smirks (snarks?), "this might be the edgiest film of the year—if the year were 1982," then pauses to reflect: "It genuinely gives me no pleasure to trash a serious-minded artist this way; I appreciate that LaBute's work is the effort of a lifetime, and this mean review will take me no more than a couple of hours." But there are some plaudits. "The situations may seem contrived at times," writes CNN's Paul Clinton, "but his feel for human foibles never goes astray." (Read David Edelstein's review in Slate.) (Buy tickets to The Shape of Things.)

Snark. In a brilliant odd-coupling, the New York Observer—that outpost of critical cruelty—profiles Heidi Julavits, editor of the Believer and author of its anti-snark manifesto. Writer Joe Hagan suggests (snarks?) that Julavits' dislike of mean reviewers is personal, catalyzed not only by her own writerly sensitivity, but by her revulsion for a New York Times pan written by Sam Sifton, who was the best man at Julavits' first wedding and the best friend of Julavits' ex-husband. (Got that?) In fact, Hagan suggests, the larger literary debate may have arisen out of a complex, subcutaneous, everybody-knows-everybody dynamic: kinda like Bloomsbury, except with more feuds about the value of MFA programs.

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"When asked if she thought the sort of Molotov-cocktail critiques for which New York intellectuals were once famous could add up to a kind of healthy, literary-Darwinian struggle, Ms. Julavits said no," writes Hagan. " 'Unless you see the struggle for the fittest being between reviewers and writers of books, and then the reviewers are going to win,' she reasoned. 'And then what are they going to write about?' "

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The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong (Houghton Mifflin). This "sumptuous tale of gastronomy, language, cravings, and cruelty"—a first novel narrated by the tongue-tied Vietnamese chef of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein—turns many critics endearingly self-conscious about their own words of praise. The New York Times' Christopher Benfey plucks a phrase from Toklas' diary: "insecure, unstable, unreliable but thoroughly enjoyable." Truong's book "tempts a reviewer to dip into his stock of adjectives— exquisite, challenging, lyrical, enigmatic —and push them around into various combinations like those magnetized 'refrigerator poetry' tiles," marvels the San Jose Mercury News' Charles Matthews. Others dish up culinary metaphors: "Not since John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure has a novel been so, um, consumed by the gastro/historic/autobiographic/philosophic undercurrents attached to the preparation of food," writes Margaria Fichtner in the Miami Herald. "Read and savor." (Buy The Book of Salt.)

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Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion's World Series of Poker, by James McManus (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Critics adore McManus' "suspenseful, knowledgeable, funny, arcane" account of Vegas high-stakes gambling, expanded from an essay in Harper's—although a few take issue with the book's digressive nature. The Oregonian's Jeff Baker praises McManus' asides on "poker as life, poker in American history, poker and sex, poker and baseball, game theory, luck and genetics," but to the San Francisco Chronicle's Jamie Berger, many of these additions are "unnecessary at best, just plain irksome at worst." Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times' Gerald Nicosia raves that the book is "the closest thing to a true Beat novel we've seen since Kesey went back to dairy farming." And in the Chicago Tribune, David L. Ulin argues that whatever its minor flaws, McManus' account is a smashing success for its sheer confessional chutzpah: "It takes guts to write a book like this, to reveal yourself in three dimensions, to stand as hero and fool." (Buy Positively Fifth Street.)

Movie Critics. An affectionate Los Angeles Times profile of cranky critic Rex Reed praises his "silver-screen Tourette's" and I'm-Still-Here staying power. It also provides a portrait of the critic as a young man that might give Jayson Blair pause. While bumming around Europe, Reed claimed he was with the New York Times and snagged an interview with Buster Keaton—as well as an "impromptu" one with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Patrick Goldstein writes. "It was impromptu in the sense that Reed spoke no French and Belmondo spoke no English and there was no interpreter in sight. 'I really made a lot of it up,' Rex admits, 'figuring he'd never see what I wrote anyway.' " Reed wrote the stories on the back of hotel stationery and then sent the Belmondo piece to the Sunday section of the old Herald Tribune and the Keaton piece to the Times. Since he didn't know the Times'address, he just wrote "42nd Street." Then Keaton died—making Reed's piece his last interview. " 'When I got back to New York, I had two stories in the same Sunday, and I was the talk of the town,' Reed recalls."