Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 25 2004 2:33 PM

Moore Politicizing

But Fahrenheit 9/11 alone won't unseat Bush.

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Fahrenheit 9/11 (Lions Gate; IFC Films; Fellowship Adventure Group). "The real problem" with Michael Moore's searing indictment of President Bush and the Iraq war, says Newsweek, is "not the message, but the method." For every critic like the Village Voice's J. Hoberman, who finds the film "succinct and hilarious in making its points —as well as infuriating and tragic," there's another like Salon's Stephanie Zacharek who wonders, "Should we really be holding up cheap shots, inference and sloppy reporting as gateways to the truth?" (The New York Times' A.O. Scott takes the long view, saying, "if parts of it seem rash, overstated or muddled, well, so has the national mood.") While there's some hope that Fahrenheit 9/11 could affect the election, there's also much skepticism. As David Denby puts it in The New Yorker: Moore's "enduring problem as a political artist is that he has never known how to change anyone's politics." (Read David Edelstein's review and Christopher Hitchens' critique.) (Buy tickets to Fahrenheit 9/11.)

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The Notebook (New Line). "Ladies and gentlemen, start your sobbing," advises the Los Angeles Times. This "three-hankie weepie" based on the maudlin novel by Nicholas Sparks is told in flashback, as an elderly man reads a story of star-crossed young lovers to a woman suffering from memory problems. It's the kind of movie where "wild storms always herald the onslaught of passion; and there's always an old piano in the rundown plantation house, just a-waitin' for someone to come play it," says the Miami Herald. Naturally, hard-bitten critics recoil: Rolling Stone calls The Notebook an "open faucet of tear-jerking swill," and LA Weekly says it "racks up the sugary clichés till you're screaming for mercy." But a small contingent holds that, though corny, the film is "also absorbing, sweet and powerfully acted": Co-star Rachel McAdams, who plays one of the young lovers, even draws comparisons to Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass. (Buy tickets to The Notebook.)

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White Chicks (Columbia/Sony). The timing of the latest Wayans Brothers film, in which Shawn and Marlon don whiteface drag and go to the Hamptons, "really couldn't be any better," says the Boston Globe: "White girls' flaunty entitlement might be displacing hip-hop materialism as popular culture's number one attitude." But White Chicks doesn't live up to its transgressive promise, complain legions of disappointed critics. (Many of whom obtusely knock the makeup for being—go figure—totally unconvincing.) Soft-pedaling the racial satire, it's actually "a surprisingly standard drag comedy," says the San Francisco Chronicle; so derivative, according to the Washington Post, that "it could be called Some Like It White." It's even tame when it comes to gender, says the New York Times: The Wayanses are "carefully, emphatically marked as not gay" and "prohibited from taking any surreptitious pleasure in their masquerade." (Buy tickets to White Chicks.)

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A Ghost Is Born, by Wilco (Nonesuch). After the electronic flourishes of the much-acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, critical darling Wilco gets back to basics with "vacuum tubes and old mics," "spiraling electric-guitar jams," and "sustained feedback howls." Critics respond with a litany of classic rock references—apparently, the band now sounds like Neil Young, Big Star, the Beatles, the Band, Television, and the Replacements. Yet the band members are "not merely rehashers of bits of rock past," qualifies Entertainment Weekly: 10-minute-plus tracks make this "their most audacious and riskiest record to date."Ghost is "even harder to pin down" than Foxtrot, agrees the New York Times; it's the "story of a man who wants nothing more than to dissolve." The album is "shot through with the fear of never quite saying what it means, never quite getting it right, and maybe losing it all in the process," says the Onion—"that's what makes it a great record." (Buy A Ghost Is Born.)

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My Life, by Bill Clinton (Knopf). So far, press coverage of Bill Clinton's memoir contains very few actual reviews—but those that have appeared are surprisingly unanimous. Speed-reader Michiko Kakutani set the tone, calling the book "a hodgepodge of jottings" that's "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull." If anything, Kakutani seems to have been kind; she at least enjoyed the "pleasing emotional directness" of Clinton's account of his Arkansas childhood (an opinion echoed by Michael Isikoff and Weston Kosova in Newsweek, who found the book "hardly an edge-of-your-seat experience" overall). The Associated Press, however, didn't even like the early years, complaining that none of the "multitudes" of obscure Arkansans come alive, and neither do the main characters of this "badly conceived, flatly written, poorly edited book." Clinton's account of his presidency gets the worst treatment: "It's like being locked in a small room with a very gregarious man who insists on reading his entire appointment book, day by day, beginning in 1946." (Buy My Life.)

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Hatchet Jobs, by Dale Peck (New Press). The Peck saga grinds on, as book reviewers finally get their chance to lock horns with the bad boy of the profession. Carlin Romano (who recently squared off with Peck in person) turns in the most credible Peck imitation in the Chronicle of Higher Education, indicting him with a "short-list" of eight sins—"hypocrisy, inconsistency, jealousy, contemptuousness, hyperbole, repetitiveness, self-consciousness, pretentiousness"—and calling him a "mediocre graduate student." In a similar vein, Scott McLemee dubs Peck's critical style "a gesture of adolescent self-definition" in Newsday and laughs at his attempts at attaining "the gravitas of Eliot, circa 1920." More mildly, but no less damningly, the Chicago Sun-Times thinks there's "no real sizzle or sass" to Peck's critiques—he's no more than "a solid analyst." But wait! There are Peck defenders out there. The San Francisco Chronicle says he "always makes you think," and the Atlantic Monthly's Benjamin Schwartz anoints him "Mencken's heir." (Buy Hatchet Jobs.)

McSweeney's 13 (McSweeney's). The latest "exquisite physical object"—or "orgiastic menage-a-trois of beauty," if you prefer—from McSweeney's is a comics anthology edited by Jimmy Corrigan author Chris Ware. Incorporating a who's who of contemporary cartoonists alongside historical selections and essays, the issue has both design and comics aficionados drooling. "The finest comic anthology ever put together," cheers Time; "as carefully and brilliantly considered as Ware's own comics," applauds the Washington Post; "goes far beyond anything McSweeney's has ever done," raves the Design Observer blog. Others spot a canonical agenda. The Twin Cities' City Pages says Ware is promoting the aesthetic of "old newspaper comic strips" over that of "superhero comic books." And Britain's Independent thinks the entire enterprise is a misguided bid for legitimacy ("comics aren't and shouldn't be respectable"), calling the anthology an "over-weighty, overproduced whinge." (BuyMcSweeney's 13).

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The Tyrant's Novel, by Thomas Keneally (Nan A. Talese). The Australian has found "his best premise since that for Schindler's List," says the New York Times: A novelist in an unnamed country (clearly Iraq) is "asked" by the unnamed reigning dictator (clearly Saddam Hussein) to turn out a propagandistic potboiler within one month. The Tyrant's Novel was written "sagely, sinuously, under the spell of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa and their mad generalissimos," says Time, and its rendering of the dictator is "eerily familiar," according to the Chicago Sun-Times. (Keneally's inspiration was Mark Bowden's excellent 2002 portrait of Saddam Hussein in the Atlantic Monthly.) And everyone likes the device of giving the Middle Eastern characters Anglo-Saxon names—"we are forced to universalize, to wonder if the climate of intimidation and fear he describes can grow outside of desert nations," muses the Los Angeles Times. (Buy The Tyrant's Novel.)

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Port Mungo, by Patrick McGrath (Knopf). "Total goth," McGrath's latest novel recounts the sordid decline of a bohemian artist couple through the unreliable eyes of the husband's obsessive sister. While acknowledging that there's little new about the plot—"we have been here before, with D.H. Lawrence and Frieda, with Diego Rivera and his Frida," says the New York Times—many critics lap up the suspense or the style. Time savors "a tragedy with layers to be peeled back slowly" and "no end of mysteries" while the Detroit Free Press says the sister's "distinctive voice is a work of art in itself." Naysayers think it's all smoke and mirrors: The Village Voice complains that "what finally float to the surface are merely the shredded illusions of a silly, lonely woman in hapless love with her brother." (Buy  Port Mungo.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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