Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 20 2004 4:34 PM

Reality Bites

Suddenly, critics are mad as hell about schlock TV.

Railing Against Reality. Reality TV now accounts for 11 of the top 20 shows on television  among viewers ages 18 to 34 *, and critical fear and loathing is mounting. In the latest Harper's, Francine Prose throws the "bread-and-circus" book at the genre, indicting it for both distracting from and promoting the evil social Darwinian agenda of the Bush administration. (Not to mention encouraging mendacity and—thanks to that nasty, nasty Simon Cowell—making it harder to teach kids "kindness and empathy.") The Rosetta Stone of Reality, she claims, is Survivor's tribal council: "a parody of democracy … in which everyone votes for himself." The only thing Prose doesn't accuse reality TV of is promulgating a surveillance society. But the Village Voice's Joy Press has that covered: Critiquing a new wave of Candid Camera-type shows, she parallels security cameras and the Patriot Act with "hidden TV camera crews prowling through once anonymous city streets, looking to catch us at our most vulnerable." Academic Mark Andrejevic makes a similar point in his new Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, according to the New York Times: He calls the genre "propaganda for a new business model that only pretends to give consumers more control while in fact subjecting them to increasingly sophisticated forms of monitoring and manipulation."

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Against the Ropes (Paramount). Meg Ryan—"trussed in tragic hooker wear" as a boxing manager who takes Omar Epps to a world championship—"slurs and sashays with an off-kilter deliberation that, sadly, will soon be legend," says Entertainment Weekly. As for the film, it might as well be called "Erin Boxovitch" says the Philadelphia Inquirer, so generic is the triumph-over-the-odds template. Its "cleaned-up" version of down-and-dirty real-life promoter Jackie Kallen "would have the same chance of survival as Woody Allen going four rounds with Lennox Lewis," according to the Dallas Observer—although "a truer portrait" "might have made Ryan seem even more out of her depth," the Onion speculates. The actress, still reeling from the critical blows she received for In the Cut, does find a defender in Salon's Stephanie Zacharek, however, who "used to see nothing but a Vacancy sign in her face," but now sees "wheels turning; she's fascinating, and fun, to watch." (Read David Edelstein's Slate review.) (Buy tickets to Against the Ropes.)

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Welcome to Mooseport (Fox). This campaign comedy, in which Clintonesque ex-president Gene Hackman runs against Ray Romano's handyman for mayor of a small town in Maine, is "very much like the cautious politicians it pokes fun at," says the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It's so worried about losing votes that its characters don't say or do much." Or, as Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum puts it: "Every man in this faux-homey burg has been castrated!" Especially Romano; everybody scoffs at his small-screen-sized charisma, with the Charlotte Observer comparing him to the "sweet, slightly nerdy guy that other kids tolerate because he likes to throw parties." Hackman, on the other hand, is "a titan-diplomat in the land of Lilliputians," according to Slate's David Edelstein. (The Dallas Observer dissents: He "seems eager to stress the 'hack' in the man.") (Buy tickets to Welcome to Mooseport.)

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Eurotrip (DreamWorks). The latest fissure in Euro-American relations involves a group of American high-schoolers (played by various youthful TV stars) who travel to Germany to woo an Internet pen pal. Eurotrip falls back "on a parade of broad, one-note potshots at various nationalities, most of which wouldn't pass muster at a comedy club amateur night," says the Wall Street Journal. Otherwise, there's "sex, alcoholic excess, sex, bodily function gags, sex, topless young women and, of course, sex," according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's tally. Some scenes have the Washington Post's Sarah Gebhardt wondering if her own teenage Eurotrip was lacking: "I certainly didn't find myself tortured by an evil dominatrix or having an absinthe-inspired make-out session with my brother." Still, "judging by the post-credits outtakes, at least the cast had a good time," says the Los Angeles Times. "They got to go to Europe, while all we get is this lousy movie." (Buy tickets to Eurotrip.)

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The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This historical novel sounds gimmicky: Born a 70-year-old man in San Francisco in 1871, Max Tivoli ages backward until his death. But reviewers find themselves unexpectedly moved by Greer's "incantatory but not overheated" prose, which "idles along with a top-hatted, almost courtly elegance," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The Christian Science Monitor says Tivoli "inspires the same strange pity elicited by Dracula or Frankenstein's monster"; the Washington Post is left "bewildered by the sheer unlikely strangeness of life and feeling somehow both younger and wiser on that account." In The New Yorker, John Updike puts Greer in enviable company: Like E.L. Doctorow, he treats the past as "a theme park" to wander in "with a child's delight in gaudiness and violence," and like Proust, he presents life as "a shifting set of gorgeous mirages that nothing but descriptive genius can hold fast." ( The Confessions of Max Tivoli.)

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Goat, by Brad Land (Random House). Hyped as "the spring's most promising memoir" by Entertainment Weekly, Goat recounts the author's serial experiences with violence, first at the hands of two black hitchhikers and then at those of his white fraternity brothers. "Every man, in some capacity, has been there," says Men's Journal while Newsweek hyperbolically claims the book redefines the meaning of hazing. But other reviewers think Land barely scratches the surface of his subject. Newsday admits his clipped, fragmented prose "casts an eerie spell" but faults him for "resorting to impressionistic haziness" too often. And in neglecting to examine the difference between being mugged and being hazed, says the Village Voice, Land "lets any number of economic and political causes off the hook." Also left with "scores of frustrating, unanswered questions" is the San Francisco Chronicle, which calls this "the scattershot journal of a sensitive young man who isn't ready to face his fundamental demons." (Goat.)

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Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z, by Debra Weinstein (Random House). "All About Eve with literary grants" is how the Detroit Free Press describes this debut novel about the back-stabbing world of poetry, which combines the tell-all and ingrate-assistant genres. The Boston Globe relishes a "splendid satire of the literary life" and the San Francisco Chronicle says the book "captures the essence of the low-paying, insular world of poetry." Yet it "also takes its heroine and her ambitions seriously," notes Janet Maslin (although "a little bit" of her romance with a fellow poet whose sexual fantasy is that they're James and Nora Joyce "goes a long way"). The question of whether this is a roman à clef is moot, says the New York Times Book Review: Weinstein has invented "a convincing first-person narrator" who has an "utterly believable combination of moxie and cluelessness." (Buy Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z.)

The Grey Album, by DJ Dangermouse. This unlikely (and illegal) blend of Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album received an unlikely amount of attention—even TheNew Yorker ran a piece. EMI has thrown down an injunction, but is the record actually any good? "Of course it's a gimmick, but about half of it works anyway," says the Village Voice, citing the loop from "While My Guitar Gently Weeps": The "single-note piano intro abruptly sounds like a thug classic." (The guitars, in combination with Jay-Z's farewell-to-hip-hop lyrics, "sound like church bells marking the end of a glorious era," says the Boston Globe.) The "almost unrecognizable" "Julia," meanwhile, is transformed into "East Asian crunk music." The Los Angeles Times hears "a merger of equals, Brooklyn boasts and Liverpool lilt forming a bond that's entirely, well, natural"—"proof," says the Voice, "that the right software can now make anything sound like it belongs with anything else."

Anonymity on Amazon. It appears the snarky, back-biting world of book reviewing extends beyond the island of Manhattan into the anonymous vistas of the Internet—and Canada. The New York Times reports that a weeklong glitch on Amazon's Canadian site (now fixed) displayed the real identities of thousands of reviewers posting under assumed names. In a shocking breach of literary decorum, prominent authors were among those writing rave reviews of themselves and their friends. The Times fingers City of Night author John Rechy as well as Dave Eggers; Jonathan Franzen admits to nothing but complains about a putative negative campaign on the part of the Underground Literary Alliance against his friend, the novelist Tom Bissell. The Times also offers the following intriguing blind item: "One well-known writer admitted privately—and gleefully—to anonymously criticizing a more prominent novelist who he felt had unfairly reaped critical praise for years. She regularly posts responses, or at least he thinks it is her, but the elegant rebuttals of his reviews are also written from behind a pseudonym."

Correction, Feb. 25, 2004: This article originally stated that 11 of the top 20 shows on television are reality shows. That statistic actually pertains only to the top 20 shows on television among viewers ages 18 to 34. (Return to the corrected item.)