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. 13 2004 12:13 PM

Voting Slights

Suffragettes make like Powerpuff Girls in HBO's Iron Jawed Angels.

Iron Jawed Angels (HBO). "Legally Blonde III: The Suffragette Years" might have been a more appropriate title for this history of early 20th-century American feminism, according to the New York Times' Alessandra Stanley. "The filmmakers try so hard to make their heroines likable in conventional Hollywood ways that they squander the chance to explore their unconventional heroism," she says. With its quick cuts and montage effects, the film is shot "as if it were a music video," laments DC's Metro Weekly, complete with "rock music, R&B ballads and grrl rockers." "All that's missing," snipes the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "is the moment where they rip off the silk and muslin to reveal T-shirts that say 'Girls Rule.' " (Not missing: A bathtub masturbation scene that's "grotesque" and "gratuitous," according to the Weekly.) Nevertheless, maintains New York's John Leonard, beyond the "razzle-dazzle" this is "a reminder that feminism is first of all about human rights."

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50 First Dates (Columbia/Sony). Could Adam Sandler actually be maturing? "He's still playing a man-boy," says the Charlotte Observer, "but the emphasis is slowly shifting from the latter to the former." In Hollywood's latest memory-loss movie, Sandler woos an amnesiac Drew Barrymore anew each day. At first, "conversations about walrus penis size" prevail, but once Barrymore shows up, says the New York Times, the "forces of coarseness and idiocy surrender before her bright, soft smile and sly good humor." The two stars "have a goo-goo chemistry that's hard to resist," according to Entertainment Weekly, and the film "connects emotionally by tapping into the frustration" of her character's condition. There are still plenty of Sandler haters, however: LA Weekly says the film oscillates "gracelessly between the coarse and the merely saccharine" and the Los Angeles Times thinks it's "hard to beat as the worst movie of the year." (Read David Edelstein's Slate review here.) (Buy tickets to 50 First Dates.)


Pazz and Jop 2003. Rock critics unite with Grammy voters and pick OutKast for Best Album in the Village Voice's annual poll. (They go one better by handing them Best Single, too.) In his lead essay, Robert Christgau sets a self-flagellating tone, lamenting Pazz and Jop's "institutional racism" (despite OutKast's win, he says, voters paid insufficient attention to hip-hop albums) and dissing his voters (726 this year): "Our rolls are larded with part-timers who buy many records and miss many more. And they're joined annually by newbies who learned to write from literary theorists and honed their opinionizing skills in the dog-eat-dog cenacles of college radio." These days, though, the Pazz and Jop postmortem has become more interesting—and infinitely more self-reflexive—than the poll itself. Stats-obsessed rock critics calculate the alignment of each critic's picks with the overall vote, list everyone whose only hip-hop vote was OutKast, post their full comments, and agonize over the race and gender implications of the vote.

CD Cover

Feels Like Home, by Norah Jones (Blue Note). Less is more, say fans of this country-music-tinged follow-up to the multimillion selling Come Away With Me. The Miami Herald loves Jones' "simple and natural voice, free of unnecessary frills or brazen sexuality"; the San Francisco Chronicle lauds "her scrupulous restraint and often ethereal detachment"; Rolling Stone praises her for avoiding "tight couplets and big-payoff refrains" in favor of "ruminative moods and hushed-whisper atmospheres." Less is less, say detractors. Entertainment Weekly thinks Jones' sound is "tailor-made for Southwestern spa owners who've tired of South American flutes"; Salon is indifferent to her "inescapable, overwhelming blandness"; and Slate's Seth Mnookin chalks her success up to a sinister anti-marketing marketing plan. The New York Times' Ben Ratcliff splits the difference in an excellent piece, saying Jones has "managed to make a virtue of vagueness" and calling this "multipurpose music: whatever your circumstances, you can plug in your own life's coordinates and project yourself into her songs." ( Feels Like Home.)

Middle-Aged Memoirs. "We're starting to miss Elizabeth Wurtzel," says the New York Observer. Citing confessional books and articles by David Denby, Katha Pollitt, Neil Strauss, and Joyce Wadler, the weekly spots a trend: "Comfortably employed, middle-aged writers" are latching onto the twentysomething strategy of publishing "queasy, painful-to-read, subtextually hostile 'way too much information' scenes from their own lives." The New York Post picks up on the theme, asking a group of recent memoir writers (including Denby), "just how much info" is too much? (Answer: They have no regrets.) Denby does complain about the media fixation on his Internet porn fixation, and Laura Miller piously jumps to his defense in the New York Times, saying "the revelation is only scandalous if you believe that New Yorker staffers are a kind of secular priesthood." Miller goes on to praise "a new, cannier breed" of memoirists, like Brad Land (Goat), who vividly re-create past experiences but avoid drawing tired conclusions about them.

The Grammys. "So much for the schlock and awe," said the Los Angeles Times' Carina Chocano. The 46th Grammys, timidly broadcast on five-minute tape delay, "were the picture of circumspect mutual admiration and corporate synergy." Nobody got naked, "unless you count a dude in Parliament Funkadelic." Justin Timberlake's apology for exposing Janet Jackson's breast at the Super Bowl "exemplified the career-first mentality of his generation," mourned the New York Times. ("Janet stayed home alone [I hope] doing tequila shots and flashing her tits at the TV," said Slate's Dana Stevens.) The one bright spot: "Hip-hop has finally been fully embraced by the Grammys," said the Los Angeles Times' Robert Hilburn. And blogging has been embraced by Neal Pollack, who parodied the self-congratulatory tone of the medium when covering the Grammys for Salon: "We're making gossip on our own termz now. Saggymelongate was last week." Gawker found his mimicry "kind of eerie"; others were flattered.

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Call of the Mall, by Paco Underhill (Simon & Schuster). This self-described "retail anthropologist" is founder and CEO of Envirosell, a consulting firm that advises retailers on shopping patterns. Yet he's "a pessimist" when it comes to malls, says the Wall Street Journal, "seeing many squandered opportunities and loathing much of the mall experience." (The big problems: a conflict between real estate developers, who only want to maximize retail space, and merchants, who have little control over their stores' aesthetics.) Reviewers find this "thorough and sometimes amusing survey" "downright entertaining"—Underhill "loves to shop," says the Washington Post; he just prefers city streets—but they eventually tire of the author's company. The Journal thinks "first-rate insights" are dulled by repetition and overwhelmed by dialogues with "mall-walking companions, from fellow experts to giggly teens." And the Houston Chronicle complains the book is written for retailers, not consumers: "One gets the sense that this book functions best as a promotional brochure for Envirosell." (Call of the Mall.)

Book cover

The Rules of Engagement, by Anita Brookner (Random House). "Each year brings forth a new Brookner novel," says the New York Times, "with the regularity of a ticking metronome atop a dusty piano in a dark London room."The Rules of Engagement, which pits two Englishwomen—one proudly repressed, one in futile search of fulfillment—against each other, is yet another "tale of helplessness, subjugation and renunciation," according to the Washington Post. The Times finds Brookner's closed universe "immensely reassuring, in a rather dismal manner," and the Atlantic Monthly says that, like the work of Joseph Cornell and Nicholson Baker, her "novels have become obsessive miniatures that work best if you accept them on their own strange terms." But the New Republic wants to let some air into that dark London room: Brookner "knows her characters' plights so well that the novel seems to lack any sensation of urgency. The prose is confident, at times elegant, but too often it feels rigged, and exasperatingly fatalistic." (Buy The Rules of Engagement.)