The Big Bounce (Warner). Owen Wilson's latest, a heist caper set in Hawaii, "sports all the earmarks of an Elmore Leonard adaptation," says LA Weekly—"beautiful losers, sunny locale, smart-ass dialogue, funky soul soundtrack." The movie—which finds roles for everyone from Morgan Freeman to Harry Dean Stanton and Willie Nelson—runs on island time, and some critics are happy to go with the flow. Entertainment Weekly gazes contentedly at "plot fronds" that "weave together like the brim of a cheap raffia sun hat, loose and fraying" and the Chicago Tribune thinks the narrative "unwinds with the ease and casual menace of a snake in the sunlight." Others, however, find their mellow harshed by what the Onion calls "a hurried, confounding finale." The Washington Post says the script is "as flat as day-old seltzer," and the New York Times complains the film "might have been made by one of [Jimmy] Buffett's more dissolute beach-bum characters." (Buy tickets to The Big Bounce.) (Read David Edelstein's review in Slate.)
The Perfect Score (Paramount). This heist caper film, on the other hand, is set inside a high school, where a group of students (including Scarlet Johanssen) try to steal the answers to the SAT. Critics hand out failing grades across the board. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says The Perfect Score "flip-flops between feeble attempts at humor, righteous indignation and moralistic messages," while the ArizonaRepublic advises, "just rent the darned Breakfast Club instead of slogging through this sludge." Some take pity on Johanssen ("When she's on screen, even bitch-crack superiority is luminous," says Entertainment Weekly), but everyone agrees that the star student is Leonardo Nam, who plays an Asian-American stoner. The Washington Post lays the heavy mantle of "Jeff Spicoli for a new generation" upon him, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune says "the image of the lewd comic pothead is in safe hands." (Buy tickets to The Perfect Score.)
You Got Served (Screen Gems). It's only weeks since Honey hit theaters, but critics already have another chance to bust out the Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo references. In place of Jessica Alba's midriff, substitute B2K singer Omari Grandberry's pigtails; the result, says the Hollywood Reporter, is "a more hardcore look at hip-hop dance" that's also "marginally less dumb" than Honey, allows Variety. But there isn't enough plot "to fill a music video," says the Philadelphia Inquirer, which makes this "a showcase in search of a movie," according to LA Weekly. Still, those dance scenes are "fabulous" and filled "with undeniable energy," notes the Dallas Observer, which leads the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to suggest: "Just pretend the acting scenes are commercial breaks, and you'll be fine." (Buy tickets to You Got Served.)
The Apprentice (NBC). The Boston Globe wins the critical challenge posed by Donald Trump's reality-TV hit—how to describe his bizarre hair—by calling it "a mohair raccoon." The business challenges issued to contestants prompt thoughts on corporate culture. Business Week laments the fall of B-school grads from late-'90s Masters of the Universe to reality fodder, but Slate's Dennis Cass thinks the show "is best viewed as an ode to the American hustler" and Salon predicts the winner will be "the contestant who carves out the most mesmerizing narrative"—"a mirror image of Trump," in other words. After the women's team dominates, the Village Voice observes "a confusing view of gender circa 2004. The female team bickers and backbites, while the guys appear hesitant and touchy-feely." But the show just brings out "the merciless prick" in New York: "It demonstrates that while the boss is generally a tool, it's your co-workers who will really be the death of you."
The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, by Gregg Easterbrook (Random House). Embraced by op-ed columnists across the land, this book uses a barrage of statistics to argue that "rather than nasty, brutish and short, 21st-century life is good, comfortable, and long"—and then analyzes why we're still not happy. Several commentators—including Rush Limbaugh, George Will, and David Brooks—agree we've never had it so good. But some dismiss Easterbrook's case as a sophisticated gloss on what "grandmother said, money can't buy happiness," and others dispute his numbers. For example, the New York Times gets Easterbrook to retract his widely circulated assertion that, if immigration is factored out, income inequality has not risen. In the New York Post, Virginia Postrel dismisses his "naive economics" and "folk psychology" and rails (not surprisingly) against his critique of consumerism. And the Wall Street Journal notes that while money might not buy happiness, "the old vaudeville line, 'rich is better,' has a certain persuasive quality." (the Progress Paradox.)
1968: The Year That Rocked the World, by Mark Kurlansky (Ballantine).The man who brought us Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World applies his "history as verbal collage" technique to a beloved boomer year. Some reviewers indulge in misty water-colored memories: The Washington Post reminds us that "Everyone could coo-coo-ca-choo to the tune of 'Mrs. Robinson.' " Caveats aside (the book includes nothing on environmentalism, for example), everyone thinks Kurlansky is "splendid at clipping key moments" from the turbulent year and arranging them "in innovative ways," as the Chicago Tribune puts it. But according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the book offers "surprisingly little in the way of analysis" of why the upheaval was so widespread—although it does conclude that "the real connection was television," says the Economist. That inspires The Nation (apparently unaware that online utopianism is mostly libertarian) to claim that with the advent of the Internet, "it is almost inevitable" that '68-style anticapitalist revolt will return. ( 1968.)
Traffic (USA). Critics say the third iteration of this gritty portrait of the global drug trade (the show follows the original British series and Steven Soderbergh's movie) has been retooled to reflect Sept. 11. Al-Qaida is now part of the mix, and "there is not the same sense of futility" that suffused the earlier versions, says the New York Times; in this take, "a few tough men can make a difference." The style has changed too: "The primary influence," according to the Seattle Times, is Fox's 24—complete, unfortunately, with "gaping holes in the plot" and "inconsistent characters." Still, New York is glad the new version aims to "rack our nerves and bust our chops" because that means it's "much too busy to moralize." But the Village Voice complains that, despite the expanded scope, this Traffic has a "narrower perspective" than its predecessors: "It becomes yet another jingoist action flick that presents us as the unlucky victims of globalization." (Read Slate's take on Traffic here.)