Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 9 2004 4:01 PM

Truth Is Duller Than Fiction

The latest big-screen Alamo is accurate, and boring.

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The Alamo (Buena Vista). "How many last stands does the Alamo have to make before Hollywood finally gives this historical standby a rest?" wonders the Christian Science Monitor. This Alamo's hook is that it's the most accurate film ever made about the legendary battle—but it feels "like it was adapted from a chapter in a middle-school history textbook," says the Onion. The only thing critics seem likely to remember is Billy Bob Thornton. He plays Davy Crockett "like Bill Clinton in a coonskin cap, as charismatic as he is formidable," says the Philadelphia Inquirer; the Los Angeles Times calls him "both empathetic and entertaining," simultaneously "a fallible man and king of the wildly mythic frontier." But Thornton shares screen time with Jason Patric as James Bowie and Dennis Quaid as Gen. Sam Houston, and "the movie clearly struggles to decide which—and whose—story to tell," says the Hollywood Reporter. (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to The Alamo.)

Mrs. Farnsworth (Flea Theatre). The beginning of this "impish piece of agit-prop" (Variety) suggests that playwright A.R. Gurney will "soon rival Richard A. Clarke as a most-valued target of the Bush administration," says the Hartford Courant. The play stars Sigourney Weaver as a rich Democrat who has written what might be a memoir about a hard-partying Yale student—suspiciously reminiscent of George W. Bush—who paid his girlfriend to have an abortion; John Lithgow—"so officiously tony he makes William F. Buckley sound like Eminem" (Variety)—is the patrician husband who tries to keep her story from being exploited as campaign sleaze. The New York Times calls the play "as polite and sweetly subversive a political attack as you're likely ever to come across." But Newsday complains that Gurney "second-guesses himself so much that he extracts the teeth from his script before it has a chance to bite"; he "doesn't so much preach to the choir as amuse it with tittle-tattle," says the Newark Star-Ledger.

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The Girl Next Door (Fox). Playing "like a late-night channel-surf through soft-core sitcoms, American Pie wannabes and '80s Brat Pack romances" (Variety), The Girl Next Door is based on an unlikely affair between a high-school nerd and a retired porn star. Everyone finds the premise ridiculous (aside from Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, who claims "the starlets of the skin world—a few of them, at any rate—really do come off as slumming middle-class 'nice' girls"). But the Chicago Tribune thinks stars Elisha Cuthbert and Emile Hirsch "create a believable relationship," and USA Today finds the film "essentially sweet" and "benign." Others are more critical: The Onion points out that while The Girl Next Door"makes a point about the mistake of treating women as sex objects," it's also "perfectly content to use" Cuthbert "as a plot device for the second and third acts." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to The Girl Next Door.)

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Johnson Family Vacation (Fox Searchlight). This family-comedy/road-trip movie starring Cedric the Entertainer has critics wailing, "When are we going to be there?"—"there," says A.O. Scott in the New York Times, "meaning either a worthwhile joke or, failing that, the end credits." Bad enough to make the Onion"feel misty-eyed for the urine-soaked-sandwich gags" of National Lampoon's Vacation, the film is full of recycled capers so lifeless, the LA Weekly calls them "joke zombies" that "should be dead and buried." (The Village Voice counted and found "exactly two chuckle-worthy moments.") Even critics' favorite Cedric the Entertainer can't save it—though he "tries his hardest," his humor is "reined in" in a "straight-man role," says the San Francisco Chronicle—and as for co-star Vanessa Williams, her performance is "less-committed" than the ones she delivers "in her Radio Shack spots," says the Boston Globe. (Buy tickets to Johnson Family Vacation.)

The Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for "his one-of-a-kind reviews of automobiles." Neil is not only the first automotive journalist to win the award—he is only the second non-arts critic ever to win. (The first was David Shaw, for media criticism, in 1991.) Neil's latest column covers the emergence of scooter culture in L.A. ("Riding a motor scooter in Los Angeles is a religious experience. And that religion is Calvinism"); his personal favorite pondered the contradiction between Cadillac's boomer-focused ad campaign and its embrace by hip-hop ("you are not going to find white middle-aged soccer moms swapping out their Sting CDs so they can rattle windows with Youngbloodz's 'Cadillac Pimpin' ").

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Bergdorf Blondes, by Plum Sykes (Miramax). The Vogue columnist's first book is part of "a sudden spate of thinly veiled novels set in the rarified world of spoiled New York twentysomethings and the blind items that plague them," says the New York Post self-referentially. The Daily News calls Bergdorf Blondes"a Magnolia Bakery cupcake of a book, thick with icing," and the New York Times' Janet Maslin chews happily on the "brain candy," praising the book's "distinctive, wily and well-deployed comic voice." On the other side of what one of Sykes' characters would probably call "the pond," the Times of her native London pouts that Brits do so know what a Brazilian is. Sykes places the bikini wax high on a list of "reasons why New York is better than London" and uses it as an extended metaphor for sex (South America hasn't been "so tiresomely treated" since "Jay McInerney discovered Bolivian marching powder," says Maslin). But the London Times sniffs at her ignorance: Doesn't Sykes know the treatment "is available everywhere in England?" (Bergdorf Blondes.)

The Swan (Fox); I Want a Famous Face (MTV). Critics haven't even seen The Swan yet (it airs Wednesday), but that doesn't keep them from working up a frenzy over "two of the ugliest reality shows yet." In The Swan (which should "make you fall to the ground and curl into a ball"), so-called ugly ducklings get plastic surgery before a beauty pageant finale; I Want a Famous Face ("simply truly vile") presents itself as a documentary, showcasing six people who get surgery in order to look like their idols. Contemplating "cyanide," the Boston Globe's Matthew Gilbert says what separates Face from other makeover shows is that its subjects aren't "creating better versions of themselves"—they're "annihilating themselves in order to become someone else." In the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano argues that "guided, strategic, sponsor-aided and celebrity-inspired transformation" has emerged as the "dominant philosophy" of reality TV. 

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Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit (Penguin Press). In an attempt to answer "the inescapable post-Sept. 11 question: Why do they hate us so?" the authors diagnose "a complex of assumptions" that characterize the West (represented chiefly by the United States) as "arrogant, materialistic, secular, superficial and rootless." (This stereotype predates Plum Sykes and The Swan, apparently.) The twist is that they locate the origins of this worldview not in the East, but in a European backlash against Enlightenment values. The Los Angeles Times complains the argument's parameters are "fuzzy" and wonders just "where and what is the West?" Still, says the Economist, while Occidentalism sometimes promises "more than it can hope to deliver," "the links it makes are illuminating." For the New York Times, the book's value lies in showing that opponents of democracy share "images and metaphors" but diverge "in the alternatives they propose"; its weakness is its failure to "draw any serious practical conclusion." (Buy Occidentalism.)