Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
July 25 2003 4:05 PM

Don't Look Twice

Critics mostly loathe Bob Dylan's new film.

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Masked and Anonymous (Sony Pictures Classics). "A strong contender for the worst movie of the century," moans the New York Post's Lou Lumenick; most critics find this Bob Dylan "vanity project" as incomprehensible as his "rambling, stream-of-conscious liner notes." A cockamamie political allegory in which America's government has been taken over "by corrupt Latinos" and its TV network by "black thugs," the whole thing "makes about as much sense as someone else's acid trip." But the film contains "enough lyric references to keep Dylanologists freeze-framing for years," and A.O. Scott finds Masked, "perhaps morbidly, fascinating" as a Dylan tribute and "artifact." Only Salon's Stephanie Zacharek is bold enough to give this "giant in-joke" a bona-fide rave. It's kind of like a "long, messy Bob Dylan song—or, more specifically, a dream version of a Bob Dylan song that folds in just about every motif he's ever written about." (Buy tickets to Masked and Anonymous.)

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Seabiscuit (Universal). "Good rather than great," sighs the Dallas Observer's disappointed Jean Oppenheimer, and most critics agree. Gary Ross' adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's widely admired book turns her "tale of personal rehabilitation" (for a horse, its jockey, its trainer, its owner, and even for Hillenbrand, who recently publicized her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome) into a "reverential paean to a vanished America that's steeped in inspirational uplift." The film includes still shots of period photographs and narration by historian David McCullough, and the director instills Hillenbrand's "rambunctious, maverick characters" with a "high-minded, responsible sentimentality," linking their personal struggles "to that of a nation mired in the Great Depression." But posing Seabiscuit as "the equivalent of FDR's New Deal may be gilding the lily," frets Newsweek's David Ansen. And by tossing in Randy Newman's syrupy score and dialogue like "Sometimes all somebody needs is a second chance," the filmmakers "soften and Hollywoodize an already emotional story in ways that are counterproductive." Read David Edelstein's Slate review here. (Buy tickets to Seabiscuit.)

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Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (Paramount). This sequel—in which Lara hunts for Pandora's Box—is better than its predecessor, but it's still just a "formulaic action film," the New York Times' Dave Kehr laments. But the Wall Street Journal's surprised Joe Morgenstern, who hated the original, finds that Angelina Jolie's "irony-free intensity, not to mention her fulfillment of a silver wetsuit's manifest destiny," makes this follow-up a "not so guilty pleasure." Roger Ebert is also sold; the "exciting locations" and set pieces—"a secret lab hidden in a retail mall" and a "perfect scene" in which a villain enters an elevator and "a little brat … punches all the buttons"—provide the thrilling "pulp adventure feeling we get from the Indiana Jones movies." But the Chicago Tribune's Mark Caro can't ignore the "been there/done that" factor: "It's hard to sympathize with anyone, villain or no, who thinks opening Pandora's Box is going to turn out well." (Buy tickets to The Cradle of Life.)

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Henry V (The Public Theater/Shakespeare in the Park). Mark Wing-Davey's "flashy, flabby" Central Park production is panned as an "uneven hodgepodge." The Associated Press' Michael Kuchwara dislikes the director's scattered references to Grease, Equus, and Mary Poppins; Newsday's Linda Winer disses Wing-Davey's mix of "high-concept deconstruction, incoherent gimmickry and underdeveloped psychology." Plus, Shakespeare's original doesn't need such "directorial bric-a-brac"; New Jersey's Star-Ledger argues that having the French symbolize the Iraqis and Henry stand in for George W. Bush is like having "a classic car in perfect running condition that's been marred by a hideous paint job." And though Liev Schreiber as Henry often "manages to surmount the confusion," even the New York Times' Ben Brantley, who for years has been the actor's biggest fan, calls Schreiber out for "coasting on his considerable surface skills—the sonorous voice, the crisp diction—while providing few fresh glimpses of character beneath." (Information on tickets for Henry V.)

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The Center of Everything, by Laura Moriarty (Hyperion). Set in Kerrville, Kan.—"the national idea of nowhere," sighs the Kansas City Star—this debut novel about a poor, dysfunctional family in the Reagan era is "a lot more interesting" than your better-basic coming-of-age story, writes New York Times' Janet Maslin, mostly because it chronicles not only "stormy adolescence" but also the "moral and intellectual evolution" of its protagonist. The "quirky and occasionally fierce" narrator Evelyn Bucknow reminds USA Today's Anne Stephenson of To Kill a Mockingbird' s Scout—"only older, savvier and less fortunate." The Christian Science Monitor's Ron Charles also praises Moriarty's honest rendering of growing up: She skips "phony breakthrough" and "precious reconciliation," writing instead about subtler "moments of kindness among unsorted laundry." But the San Francisco Chronicle's Barbara Quick finds this understated approach lacking—the book "frequently teeters over the chasm of banality." (Buy The Center of Everything.)

Nip/Tuck(FX). The title is "irritating/cutesy," but the Chicago Sun Times' Phil Rosenthal finds this drama about two bad boy plastic surgeons "irresistible/infuriating." The show is "shrewdly written" and "fun to look at," but the characters and situations—notably a teenage boy who performs his own circumcision—lack any sort of realism. Ryan Murphy, Nip/Tuck's creator, "seems willing to do anything to startle viewers," notes the Washington Post's Tom Shales, but "visual shock-and-awe tactics" (which include "the gangsters, the pistol whipping, the child molester, the constant histrionics, and the man-eating alligator" in the first episode alone) and graphic surgery scenes (like "seeing a scalpel slice through someone's face") don't necessarily mean "there's substance underneath." Ultimately, the show's points are hardly revelatory, explains the Ohio Beacon Journal's R.D. Heldenfels: "People aspire to physical perfection while remaining damaged inside," and "the men who claim to cure people's physicals ills are themselves far from perfect."

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In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History, by Adam Bellow (Doubleday). Adam Bellow (son of Saul) postulates that success based on familial connections is "not only good for the world but also essential to its very existence." The Los Angeles Times' Frederic Raphael calls the book a somewhat clichéd but "never boring" response to Andre Gide's Familles, je vous haïs (Families, I hate you), the gist of which is apparent. But in the Wall Street Journal, Alexander Waugh (grandson of Evelyn) finds the book's scope too broad; it's really an unwieldy "history of the world—from animals and primitive life forms to South American tribespeople, Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians, Borgias and Bonapartes, Roosevelts and Kennedys." The Washington Post's Chris Lehmann agrees and also thinks Bellow's focus on "sunnily accomplished progeny" is somewhat "unpersuasive." For "every RFK or Sargent Shriver" or Kate Hudson, there's a Michael Skakel, a William Kennedy Smith, and a Pauly Shore. (Buy In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History.)

Marshall Heyman is an editor and writer living in New York.