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. 21 2003 4:50 PM

What The Cat Dragged In

Critics think Mike Myers delivers too much shtick.

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The Cat in the Hat (Universal). Critics do not like it, not one little bit. "Cat shit," "kitty litter," "a vulgar, uninspired lump of poisoned eye candy," and "82 of the most wretched minutes ever imprinted on celluloid" are just a few of the poisonous words flung at this adaptation. Star Mike Myers' shtick "feels grating and inappropriate," says the New York Times' A.O. Scott. "All he is doing is showing off, and it becomes wearisome in a hurry." But the script draws the most venom. "You shouldn't have to add burps, farts and dog pee to Dr. Seuss," laments the Chicago Tribune. The final insult: a new character named Mrs. Kwan, whom the Philadelphia Inquirer calls "the most loathsome ethnic stereotype since Mickey Rooney played Audrey Hepburn's Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to The Cat in the Hat.)

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Gothika (Warner Bros.). In her first lead role since Monster's Ball, Halle Berry has stumbled into the sort of film "that sends Oscar-winning stars reeling from the A-list down to the B-list and beyond," according to the Onion. (Otherwise known as "lurid cable-movie crapola," as Rolling Stone put it.) Berry, who plays a psychiatrist imprisoned in her own hospital, "responds with a zeal that's more than the movie deserves," says the L.A. Weekly; her "claustrophobic dread is palpable." But the script is a "series of crazy chases and lady-in-distress clichés, interspersed with wildly illogical plot twists," says the Chicago Tribune. French art-house director (and Amélie co-star) Mathieu Kassovitz and his cinematographer try to counter the script's deficiencies—they "toss the camera around like a pair of speed-freaking cheerleaders"—but to no avail, sighs the Los Angeles Times: "Dreck is dreck no matter how swank the wrapping." (Buy tickets to Gothika.)

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21 Grams (Focus Features). The latest "Art Ride," as Entertainment Weekly puts it, chops its narrative into a Memento-like "farrago of flashbacks and flashforwards and flashinbetweens" (New York). The title refers to the mass supposedly lost by the body at death—the weight of the soul—and director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) swings at the big questions, according to the Hollywood Reporter: "What does one owe the dead? Where does one go for hope and redemption? How do you live a good life?" The heavyweight cast—Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts—offers acting "as painfully soulful as a meeting of recovering alcoholics," says TheNew Yorker's David Denby. The New York Times' Elvis Mitchell sees intimacy so intense, it's "tantamount to the discovery of a new country," but most critics agree with Newsweek: "The peek-a-boo narrative strategy" disguises "a melodrama that, in the plain light of day, looks more than a little overwrought." (Buy  tickets to 21 Grams.)

The World Trade Center Memorial. The eight design proposals unveiled this week are "[u]niformly sober and well intentioned," but "painfully short on imagination," says the Los Angeles Times' Christopher Knight. He divines "a new orthodoxy" in all the "predictable schemes for reflecting pools, walls of names and points of light," which seem to poach elements from the Vietnam Veterans and Oklahoma City memorials. In the Daily News, fireman's father Jack Lynch laments "the absence of artifacts that capture the devastation of 9/11" while the New York Post's Steve Cuozzo thinks one proposal "suggests an underground disco." The New York Times' Herbert Muschamp says it's hard to judge the designs absent plans for the rest of Ground Zero and claims he, for one, wouldn't mind being remembered by the simplest design, which resembles a suburban mall with a waterfall. "The question," he writes, "is whether we have the right to choose that fate for others. I'd be reluctant to." (Read Slate's take here.)

Celebrity Culture. Between Michael Jackson and Paris Hilton, it's been a tabloid kind of week, and critics respond by pondering why we care about celebrities so much. The Boston Globe thinks "Americans can't get enough of going behind the scenes" and pegs the birth of reality television to two documentaries on JFK's White House that "ushered in a new style of filmmaking" based on "intimate access." Slate's Jack Shafer says it's in our genes: He claims tabloid weeklies are "media proxies for the tribal gossip and mating rituals of the savannah." Ron Rosenbaum's explanation is a little loftier: He opines that "The great tabloid stories, like great literature, are about the nature of human nature, and they're often an argument about theodicy—the nature of God." It remains unclear what the Hilton sisters think about God, but the Los Angeles Times says their appeal is based on class, or what Barneys creative director Simon Doonan calls "that juxtaposition of dynastic wealth and really trash behavior."

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In the Zone, by Britney Spears (Jive). Whenever Britney Spears puts a new record out, says the Los Angeles Times, "everyone gathers around to see what's become of the little girl they used to know." Casting themselves as disapproving parents, disappointed lovers, and worried friends, reviewers of In the Zone take a dim view of Britney's now unfettered sexuality. The album "celebrates the singer's evolution from lying virgin to certified nymphomaniac," scolds the Boston Globe; Madonna even appears for a "torchlike passing of the bustier." But the sex doesn't satisfy: It "feels like a quickie in an alleyway" (Newsday), "like a lap-dancer seducing a client" (Chicago Tribune), "as intimate as a blowup doll" (Rolling Stone). Entertainment Weekly frets that Spears is reduced to "a moaning, groaning, giggling sound effect on her own disc"—"as if making it clear that she's a less-than-willing participant," observes the New York Times' Kelefa Sanneh, who wonders if the album's lack of personality is "a final act of rebellion, perhaps, against the music industry." (Buy In the Zone.) Still Holding, by Bruce Wagner (Simon & Schuster). This movie-industry satire mixes fictional and real-life characters so cleverly, says New York's John Homans, "it's possible that being mentioned in a Bruce Wagner novel will become a Hollywood status symbol." Wagner's prose is "chilly, funny and cruelly eagle-eyed," raves the New York Times' Dwight Garner; the author "dissects the lives of Hollywood's busily striving nobodies with the same clinical interest that he examines the lives of stars." The Baltimore Sun finds the book a bit shallow, leaping to Tinseltown's defense: "There's enough genius mucking around in there to make true artistry possible. Now, those people would be worth writing a novel about." But the Los Angeles Times knows better. It says Wagner shows "uncharacteristic generosity" toward his creations (don't worry: "there's still enough despicable behavior to satisfy") and concludes by paying the ultimate compliment: "He owns this fetid, steaming lump of a town." (Buy Still Holding.) The Hornet's Nest, by Jimmy Carter (Simon & Schuster). The first ever novel by a U.S. president chronicles an underreported aspect of the Revolutionary War: how it played out in the South. Generous reviewers admire the book's "ambitious scope," "sincerity and passion" and rejection of "anything resembling conventional wisdom." But they find the characters wooden and the narrative sprawling. The ex-president's prose style is "more appropriate to state documents than to novels," yawns the Dallas Morning News, while the Wall Street Journal complains that "Mr. Carter has a pedantic streak, as citizens may recall, and he does not spare in detailing cabin construction and other frontier matters." (Also noted: "The book displays a sexual candor unusual for a pre-Clinton president.") And the Washington Post criticizes Carter's Southern hospitality: He finds room "for every type of Georgian who existed in the late 18th century," and as a result the book "suffers, in short, from loose focus." (Buy The Hornet's Nest.) Anna in the Tropics (Royale Theater). The first Pulitzer Prize-winning play by a Hispanic-American, set in a pre-revolutionary Cuban cigar factory, "manages to be a nostalgic cultural tone poem, wrenching labor history and a full-blown old-fashioned bodice ripper," says Linda Winer in Newsday. Winer is smitten with the "surrealistically good-looking" Jimmy Smits and the "smoldering, almost feral" Daphne Rubin-Vega, and the New York Times' Ben Brantley also appreciates "the glow of sexual chemistry." Brantley has a theory about the "densely lyrical" play's unorthodox win (written by Nilo Cruz, it was chosen solely on the basis of its script, before ever being produced in New York): "On the page, such rhetoric scans better than it does on the stage." But USA Today thinks the production "owes its obviousness" to director Emily Mann, who "does little to rein in the histrionic tendencies of certain cast members." The Miami Herald agrees, saying the cast edges "a little too close stylistically to telenovela territory."