Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 7 2004 11:57 AM

Loretta Lynn and the Olsen Twins

Her new album's great, their movie is not.

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Van Lear Rose, by Loretta Lynn (Interscope). "Jack White has pulled off the ultimate fan fantasy," applauds Rolling Stone. "He's helped" Loretta Lynn "make the album we all dreamed she would make." The White Stripes guitarist, who dedicated the band's third album to the country icon, has surrounded her tunes with a classic blues rock sound, and critics lap it up with the best reviews of the year. "It's the Grand Ole Opry overrun by longhairs," says the Washington Post; "no one in the history of country music has ever made an album quite like Van Lear Rose," gushes the Detroit Free Press. The sound of Lynn's voice provokes raptures. It's "not just the smoky bourbon you relish at night," savors Salon, "but the cool OJ you drink the next morning as a restorative." And her energy is "hard to believe," says Entertainment Weekly. "Creaky-voiced rock stars half" her "age should be embarrassed." (Buy Van Lear Rose).

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i, by Magnetic Fields (Nonesuch). It's been four and a half years since Stephen Merritt released his triple-disc mainstream breakthrough, 69 Love Songs, and Time welcomes him back with adulation, calling him "the great tragicomic songwriter of his age —equal parts Cole Porter and Charlie Brown." This time out, Merritt "narrows his focus," says Rolling Stone, restricting himself to 14 songs that "mix self-conscious confessions with the light charm of pre-rock pop." But there's still a gimmick: They all start with i. (It stands for "the necessary X-factor of morbidly heartsick solipsism" and "can't-talk-about-anything-else infatuation," muses the Village Voice.) "The overwhelming mood," says the Washington Post, is "one of unabashed romanticism and sunny melodies"—one tune is "sure to be the soundtrack for gay weddings around the country this summer," claims Newsday. But it doesn't sound so fresh to Seattle Weekly, which complains that i "ultimately feels too similar in tone and sound to the last one, like it was a 69 Love Songs Superfun Expansion Pack!" (Buy i.)

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Van Helsing (Universal). The first summer blockbuster of the year pits Hugh Jackman against a dream team of ghouls, including Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Wolf Man. (Rolling Stone is "surprised" director Stephen Sommers "didn't give Van Helsing a shot at Osama bin Laden," too.) It's all in the service of synergy: The movie will be accompanied by video games, a theme park attraction, DVD re-releases of classic horror movies, and more. The Dallas Observer chomps on its popcorn and enjoys the ride, digging "super-cool weaponry, swaggering 'tude and astonishing digital architecture." But most critics complain about the incoherent, effects-driven plot—"both nonexistent and impossible to follow," says the Miami Herald—and characters so empty that Entertainment Weekly dubs them "the new digital-age hollow men." (Even Jackman is a "dreary bore," says the Wall Street Journal.) Worst of all, the movie doesn't deliver chills: It "feels like an especially lavish episode of 'Scooby-Doo'," scoffs the New York Times. (Buy tickets to Van Helsing.)

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New York Minute (Warner). The Olsen twins celebrate impending adulthood with this romp through Manhattan, in which they play, inevitably, identical twins with opposite personalities (the plot "had whiskers on it before" the "gals were born," notes the Philadelphia Inquirer.) In the New York Times, A.O. Scott stoically allows that the film is "polished and bouncy without being overly mawkish or unduly obnoxious"—and "above all, it is short." But Entertainment Weekly's weary contempt is more representative. "Sugarless gum has been marketed with more wit" than this, says Liza Schwarzbaum; the direction is like a "PowerPoint presentation." The brief moments when the girls run through the streets in towels have everyone tut-tutting. "The scenes play like a preview of the Olsens'" "steamier moves to come," shudders the Chicago Tribune. Attention wandering, the Hollywood Reporter notes a bit of Hollywood propaganda: The movie's bad guys are not bank robbers or drug dealers but "intellectual property thieves." (Buy tickets to New York Minute.)

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The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler (Putnam). Don't worry, critics reassure us. This novel about reading novels isn't just a clever experiment, and "you don't need to know anything about Jane Austen to love it." But it might be a clever commercial move. The story of a book group that reads all six Jane Austen novels "is so craftily designed" to "appeal to smart, middle-aged, book-buying women that one regards its demographic precision cynically," says the Christian Science Monitor—before admitting that "it's delightful," regardless. There are no arguments with that assessment. " Start quoting a few of Fowler's puckish lines and it becomes damnably difficult to stop," raves the San Francisco Chronicle. In the Washington Post, Michael Dirda coos that the book is "so winning, so touching, so delicately, slyly witty" and even says Fowler's use of irony ranks with Austen's. The New York Times makes a similar point, but draws the line at "plot," where Fowler is "weaker." (Buy The Jane Austen Book Club.)

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Nothing Lost, by John Gregory Dunne (Knopf). This posthumous novel travels into "the heartland of darkness," observing the media circus that comes to a small Midwestern town after a black man is brutally murdered. In the beginning, "we need a flow chart to keep track" of all the judges, football players, models, and politicians, cavils the Detroit Free Press—and that's before getting to the "Viagra death scene." But after the "woolly start," says Michiko Kakutani, the "narrative gains speed and assurance"; Dunne "captures the venalities of contemporary America" with a "pitch-perfect ear." "For the creatures dwelling in this patch of prairie, exercising free will simply isn't an option," says the Chicago Sun-Times. Although their fates are "sealed well in advance," somehow Dunne keeps us turning the pages. It's his "sardonic," "wistful" tone that does it, argues Newsday: "Imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald and John O'Hara sitting elbow to elbow in the same bar arguing over the latest tabloid scandal." (Nothing Lost.)

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Sonata for Jukebox, by Geoffrey O'Brien (Counterpoint Press). Like "an all-night DJ's labyrinthine monologue, a stream-of-memory fugue for headphones," these 15 essays conjure up a universe of American pop, as O'Brien attempts to excavate his family's history via soundtrack. (His grandfather was a band leader, his father a DJ.) He "truly finds his groove when he free-associates," says the New York Review of Books, and most critics are willing to follow him. In the New York Observer, Stephen Metcalf briefly tries out the Peckian mode—"All pop criticism is bad. Like a boring dinner guest, it's garrulous and name-dropping"—but quickly admits that actually, this particular bit of pop criticism is "wildly original," "provocative and deeply felt." And the Los Angeles Times pays the ultimate bicoastal compliment, calling East Coaster O'Brien's Beach Boys essay "maybe the best exegesis ever." Only New York refuses to dance: It says this is "a muffled memoir; O'Brien is bopping his head to music we can't quite hear." ( Sonata for Jukebox.)

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The Devil's Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little, Brown). This "beautiful book about a horrible trip" tracks the real-life journey of 26 illegal Mexican immigrants through the Arizona desert. A poet and novelist with Anglo-Mexican parents, Urrea writes about border culture with "a wrenching, disarming honesty," says the Boston Globe. Fourteen of the travelers didn't make it, and Urrea "doesn't spare us" "horrific" descriptions of the six stages of heat death, notes the Miami Herald. But Urrea also describes the history of the region, spending time with both migrants and the border patrol, and writes with "empathy and insight" about each side, according to the Los Angeles Times. And his "serious yet eccentric prose" "really sings" in the "depiction of the desert itself," says the San Francisco Chronicle. The Seattle Times sums things up: This is "a stunning work of narrative journalism that puts a much-needed face on a notoriously divisive issue." (The Devil's Highway.)

A Raisin in the Sun (Royale Theatre). How was P. Diddy's Broadway debut? "Not the wholesale embarrassment that connoisseurs of schadenfreude were hoping for," the New York Times reports. In fact, the New York Post calls Diddy "pretty damn good," Newsday says he's "better than OK," and—surely a first—his singing "delights" the Financial Times. Still, when measured against normal acting standards, he's "about as persuasive as a Teamster dancing Swan Lake," says the Washington Post. The Chicago Sun-Times agrees that he's unable to convey the "stormy interior life" of a 34-year-old chauffeur who still lives with his mother. Diddy is bolstered by Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad, who "build performances so powerful," says the Village Voice, "that everyone else is swept along with them." And he'd better be grateful, says Peggy Noonan: When Diddy kissed McDonald at curtain call, she "got this look on her face that said, 'Don't gallantly bend to kiss my little cheek when I just carried your sorry ass for three hours.' "

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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