Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Nov. 7 2003 2:33 PM

Elizabeth Smart vs. Jessica Lynch

Who is the blandest of them all?

TV still

Saving Jessica Lynch (NBC); The Elizabeth Smart Story (CBS). Networks go head-to-head this Sunday in what universally repulsed TV critics call "a battle of the blands." "The message of the week is that some televised fictions about real people are more acceptable than others," says the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, referring to CBS's recent decision not to air its Reagan miniseries, which vociferous Gipper fans called historically inaccurate. Ambiguities go unaddressed in both specials, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, and "the resulting polish smoothes away much of what made the stories distinctive." Lynch, who did not collaborate with the filmmakers, "comes across as a nullity in her own story," says the Los Angeles Times; the Smarts, who did, appear "as pure as if they had been filtered through the Lord's own Brita pitcher."

Movie still

The Matrix Revolutions (Warner Bros). As the final part of the Matrix trilogy hits screens, weary critics ponder what went wrong. "How did something that started out so cool get so dorky?" asks the Los Angeles Times. Film Threat has an answer: Once the directors "dragged us down the rabbit-hole, they had nothing left to show, just hokum and ideas stolen from other films." Some are able to tune out the clunky dialogue; awed by the main battle sequence, Newsweek says, "if Jackson Pollock had made science-fiction action movies, they might look something like this." But the New York Post thinks watching that scene is "like playing a video game with someone else's hands on the controls," and the San Francisco Chronicle complains that "much of the movie involves supporting players we barely recognize and don't care about." (Buy tickets to The Matrix Revolutions.) (Read David Edelstein's review.)

Movie still
Advertisement

Elf (New Line). The year's first Christmas movie stars Will Ferrell as a child raised by Santa's elves, and reviewers are much taken with his—and head elf Bob Newhart's—green-and-yellow garb. The LA Weekly thinks Ferrell "looks adorably like a giant zucchini with its roots still on" and the Dallas Observer is stunned by his scarily sincere "commitment to the costume."Slate's Michael Agger keeps waiting in vain for Ferrell to wreak mischievous "elf havoc," but is won over by his earnest enthusiasm: Ferrell "believes in the clichés, and you believe in him."Swingers hipster John Favreau might seem an odd choice to direct, but the Los Angeles Times says he "brings sophisticated glee and a sense of innocent fun to what could have been a moribund traditional family film." That leaves New York's Peter Rainer to play the grinch; he wants "something a tad more satirical than this Hallmark card of a movie." (Buy tickets to Elf.) (Read Michael Agger's review.)

Movie still

Love Actually (Universal). The directorial debut of Four Weddings and a Funeral writer Richard Curtis"shamelessly compresses eight or nine sure-fire hits into one booming ode to amour," says the Onion. Curtis' alter ego, Hugh Grant, plays the British prime minister, but he's just one of an endless parade of subplots and British stars. The result is "more like a record label's greatest-hits compilation or a 'very special' sitcom clip-reel show than an actual movie," gripes the New York Times. Sometimes all the syrup "makes you gag," scoffs Rolling Stone. But just when it "starts to spill out in extra gobs," says the Philadelphia Enquirer, along comes "a broken heart, or painful humiliation, to bring the picture back to the realm of the real." And the Hollywood Reporter can't help falling in love: "This movie, for all its calculation and manipulation, comes from a true believer." (Buy tickets to Love Actually.) (Read David Edelstein's review.)

Amazon's "Search Inside the Book." Amazon's new search technology, which allows its users to search the pages of books for specific words, has some critics talking like it's 1999. The function is "a lightning bolt from the future," raves Newsweek's Steven Levy. He sees Amazon and Google as "harbingers of a new kind of history, where the world's information is not only more plentiful and diverse, but astonishingly accessible." Wired's Gary Wolf hails Amazon's archive as "a bold step toward the dream of a universal library" that will enhance, not replace, books—although it "will undoubtedly fuel enthusiasm for overturning the current publishing and copyright regime" (a concern that has already led Amazon to disable the print function on its book search). Slate's Steven Johnson has more modest goals: He just wants to be able to browse his own libary (and ultimately, perhaps, "celebrity libraries") for information he's "somehow mislaid or only half-remembered." Also happy: librarians; recipe-hunters; and Slate's Timothy Noah.

Book cover

Yellow Dog, by Martin Amis (Hyperion). Despite supposedly scurrilous subject matter—porn, tabloids, the royal family, etc.—Martin Amis' satire owes its notoriety to an attack in Britain's Daily Telegraph: "It's like your favorite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating." Which makes Michiko Kakutani's best shot sound disappointingly tame: Yellow Dog"bears as much resemblance to Mr. Amis's best fiction as a bad karaoke singer does to Frank Sinatra, as a kitchen magnet of Munch's Scream does to the real painting." The Baltimore Sun, on the other hand, thinks it's "a deeply moving novel of seriousness and important values." The voice of reason is Adam Begley in the Los Angeles Times, who finds the book "compulsively facetious" but admires Amis' ability to get "the precious daily stuff of life" right and concludes, "This is second-rate Amis, neither bad enough to blast nor good enough to crow over." (Buy Yellow Dog.)

Book cover

Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre (Canongate Books). Maybe Amis should be looking over his shoulder: Yellow Dog missed the Booker Prize shortlist, but this surprise winner is described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "the most vicious satire of American life to come out of England" since Amis'Money. Written by an ex-drug addict and con artist, Vernon God Little features a narrator who survives a high-school massacre, only to be tried on television in Texas. Britain's Independent called this debut novel "Huckleberry Finn for the Eminem generation," but American critics don't see the funny side: The Chronicle thinks the book's win shows that "learned Brits are happy to see America reflected in a funhouse mirror," and Time huffs, "I'll be double-dog-darned if we're quite this easy to skewer." Nevertheless, the Boston Globe manages to laud the "hyperbolic lampoon" for its "moments of deep authenticity," and The New Yorker's Joyce Carol Oates thinks "Pierre has a flawless ear for adolescent-boy speech." (Buy Vernon God Little.)

Book cover

Whatever You Say I Am: The Life and Times of Eminem, by Anthony Bozza (Crown). Perhaps it's time for Eminem's first novel. Biographer Anthony Bozza argues that the rapper's "murderous musings are just a big postmodern joke," according to the deeply disapproving Wall Street Journal: "It seems that we are to believe that Mr. Mathers isn't just the Elvis of rap but its Martin Amis, too." The inevitable defense, from Andrew O'Hagan of the New York Review of Books: "Nastiness is a good subject for a songwriter; it always has been." Eminem is a perceptive social critic, O'Hagan writes, and his "Kim" is "an evocation of psychosis more searing than anything in the whole of American music." That sounds like the kind of "endless critical yammering about the star's importance" that, in Janet Maslin's opinion, bogs this biography down. But in spite of "all the self-promoting and padding," she admits, Bozza "has done a creditable job" examining the rapper's appeal. (Buy Whatever You Say I Am.)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Music Box Theatre). The critics are united: The star of this revival is Ned Beatty, who plays Big Daddy. But while Beatty, in the word of the New York Times' Ben Brantley, "brings to mind a rooster bred for cockfighting, just released from his cage and rarin' to ruffle feathers," the idea of a Cat in which Big Daddy is the main character "is odd, perverse, even completely wrong," according to Newsday's Linda Winer. The problem, almost everyone agrees, is Ashley Judd: Peter Marks of the Washington Post calls her Cat "something neutered" and says "a junior-size portrait of Maggie turns the temperature way down on this stew pot of a play." But that's just fine by the New York Post's Clive Barnes, who says this "beautifully nuanced" production "suggests Williams as an American Chekhov."