Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
March 12 2004 3:04 PM

Calling All Viewers

Critics really, really want you to watch Wonderfalls, a show with talking tchotchkes.

Wonderfalls (Fox). Critics smitten with this "seductively strange, semi-surreal comedy series" are already fretting protectively about its chances of survival. Set in Niagara Falls, Wonderfalls stars Caroline Dhavernas as a souvenir store clerk who has visions of talking tchotchkes. ("Animism is an occupational hazard of work in retail," says the New York Times, given the "tormenting hours alone on the floor.") Everyone compares the show's mysticism to Joan of Arcadia, but the difference is the cynicism of the "delightfully curmudgeonly heroine": "There are no touching angels here, no talk of the lovely, gentle, caring universe that enfolds us all," says the Los Angeles Times. Newsday calls Dhavernas "a marvelously understated comic actress," and the Boston Globe admires her "piercing green eyes that betray both rude intolerance and veiled excitement." There's just one problem. The show's Friday night time slot is "the equivalent of a tossing a rare water lily into the Sahara," wails the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "Why, Fox, why?"

Secret Window

Secret Window (Columbia/Sony). Once again, critics line up to praise Johnny Depp's acting, this time in an adaptation of Stephen King's novella about a hermitlike writer accused of plagiarism by a sinister visitor (John Turturro). "Depp's terrific performance finds him wielding bone-dry sarcasm like a scalpel," raves the Onion while Entertainment Weekly says he "makes even the act of chowing down on a bag of Doritos look like a Method exercise gone merrily askew." Unfortunately, the script, which is pitched somewhere between The Shining and Misery, doesn't measure up. "Things go bump in the night, dogs howl, people scream and houses disintegrate," yawns the Los Angeles Times; the "only suspense," says the New York Times, lies in "wondering if the picture will hit its promised 97-minute running time." The Washington Post is left asking why "Depp can't consistently pick vehicles that do him justice." (Buy tickets to Secret Window.)

Spartan
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Spartan (Warner). In his latest stripped-down genre flick, David Mamet "takes on the digi-tech, hard-Clancy-core intel thriller." There's a womanizing president; his missing daughter, possibly abducted into white slavery; and coverups at the highest levels of government. Val Kilmer stars as a secret agent with "the legal right to maim and murder as many people as he chooses as long he doesn't explain anything to the audience," as the New York Observer's Rex Reed puts it. The New York Times calls the first two-thirds "logically meticulous and genuinely surprising," but the twist ending is a bit much for most critics. This is the first Mamet film, says Entertainment Weekly, "in which the upended genre conventions start to spin into Hollywood conspiracy clichés." Still, Mamet's paranoid speculations may have some value. Noting that the government reportedly brainstormed terrorist scenarios with screenwriters after 9/11, Slate's David Edelstein says that if Mamet wasn't consulted, "our national security has been compromised." (Buy tickets to Spartan.)

Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London (MGM). "Stretching what was a cute concept to the breaking point," this kid spy sequel sends Frankie Muniz off to England in order to track down a mind-control device. The plot "might sound nifty to kids who think the Manchurian Candidate is a take-out option," cracks Entertainment Weekly. But the script trots out "the flimsiest of heavily worn spy-movie clichés," says the Hollywood Reporter; "in terms of ingenuity," it "ranks more like an 000 than an 007." In addition, the film "lays on the black ethnic posturing with a forklift" and also "trades heavily in cartoon Germans, Indians and British," according to Newsday. Even praise for Agent Cody Banks 2is backhanded: Although it's "an action comedy that mostly fails on both fronts," says the Washington Post, it's "remarkably painless" because of director Kevin Allen's refusal to "dwell too long on any given flaw." (Buy tickets to Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London.)

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Burning Down My Master's House, by Jayson Blair (New Millennium).The Los Angeles Times sets the tone for coverage of the disgraced ex-New York Times journalist's memoir, calling it "a vile book, as distasteful a thing as you're likely to handle without gloves." Not only is Blair "pathologically immature and morally absent" (Cleveland Plain Dealer), his narrative of events is "whiny, sniping, at times contradictory" (Orlando Sentinel), and his prose is peppered with "tortured metaphors and unbearably clumsy syntax" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution). It's left to the Washington Post and The New Yorker to provide something other than contempt. In the former, Hugh Pearson says we shouldn't dismiss Blair's blind items about other Times journalists: They "are no different from the kaleidoscope of fallible humanity they write about." In the latter, Columbia J-School Dean Nicholas Lemann says such frauds usually occur at places "undergoing some kind of category shift" and suggests that the Times"establish a guerrilla team of fact checkers" to perform random tests for accuracy. (Burning Down My Master's House.)

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Aloft, by Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead). With his third novel, which deals with a curiously disengaged, middle-aged white suburbanite, the Asian-American Lee "is trying to unfetter himself from the tyranny of writing about cultural identity," says the Boston Globe. Other more subtle reviewers say he's simply writing about a different kind of cultural identity. For the San Jose Mercury News, Aloft provides a "provocative glimpse of the role that ethnicity plays in mainstream America" (the main character's ex-wife is Korean, as is his daughter's fiance, and his lover is Puerto Rican) while Newsday says it narrates "the rise of a new, multi-ethnic generation"—and paradoxically praises "oddly written dialogue, not quite believable situations and top-heavy metaphors" as "a major step forward" for a writer who's sometimes been "hamstrung by his own elegance."New York complains about a different paradox: While Aloft"has more incident than a Schwarzenegger movie," it "often seems a trifle, a melodrama manqué." (Aloft.)

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The Epicure's Lament, by Kate Christensen (Doubleday). Hugo, the misanthropic hermit who narrates this novel, "descends from a long line of cad lit— the perverser he gets, the more delicious it seems," says Newsweek. (Everyone invokes Humbert Humbert.) In Salon, Laura Miller observes that such characters are always written by men. She argues that because Christensen is a woman, she "can't pretend to offer a candid window into the masculine mind," and therefore "with female readers, Hugo must get by on personality alone." (He certainly gets by with the Detroit Free Press's Marta Salij: "I'm in love with him, I think.") But the New York Observer says Christensen isn't worried about impersonating a male voice; the book is less about realism, more about "brilliant swooping sentences, acidic observations on contemporary life, hilarious bitchy asides"—and, occasionally, "plain unironic despair." (Buy The Epicure's Lament.)

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Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, by Graham Robb (W.W. Norton). In tracing 19th-century gay life through literature, diary entries, and letters, this "brilliant work of social archaeology" unearths truths that "have been hidden in plain sight" "for decades if not centuries," raves the New York Times. With caveats— Strangers"focuses almost exclusively on the upper echelons" and on "gay men—primarily those in Europe"—most other critics agree. The Village Voice hails this as part of a new wave of books arguing against "the notion that 'the homosexual' "—as a social category—"is a modern, Western invention." And the Los Angeles Times calls Robb's "relaxed, witty" style "emphatically uncharacteristic of literature on this subject."Newsday's John Loughery, however, can't forget that Robb is straight. "Does this matter? At moments I think it did," he says, worrying that "the pain involved in being a homosexual" is lost in the reclamation of "individual stories and acts of resistance from a gray, generalized past." (Strangers.)