Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 18 2004 4:02 PM

Spielberg's Star-Spangled Manner

Critics sound off on what The Terminal reveals about America.

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The Terminal (DreamWorks). The Terminal is "like Capra doing Kafka," says the New York Press. Steven Spielberg has taken a potentially nightmarish premise—an Eastern European immigrant is trapped at JFK after a revolution in his homeland leaves him stateless—and turned it into "a wholehearted valentine to the dream of equality America represents," according to the Charlotte Observer. Some critics, like the Wall Street Journal, find the film "unconscionably, and feebly" "calculated." Others see a fable that comments on homeland security and the Patriot Act. The Terminal couldn't be "more pointed about the arbitrariness of U.S. policy toward foreign nationals," says L.A. Weekly; this is "the first post-9/11 comedy," adds the Dallas Observer. There's little disagreement on star Tom Hanks: He gets raves almost across the board for a "Chaplinesque" performance that, says the Onion, "balances wide-eyed confusion with innate shrewdness." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to The Terminal.)

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Around the World in 80 Days (Disney). This remake of the classic Jules Verne novel stars Jackie Chan as the assistant to crackpot British inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan)—which is "like green-lighting a Lone Ranger movie based on the stunt-casting of his faithful steed, Silver," observes Premiere. Tired of overblown blockbusters, some critics embrace the film's old-fashioned pleasures: The San Francisco Chronicle calls it "energetic and enormously good-natured," and the New York Times thinks it's "a deliriously silly caper." (Lowering the bar, the Onion argues that "sometimes a blockbuster can set itself apart simply by not sucking.") Less sentimental types, however, yawn at "a lifeless travelogue," and the Dallas Observer jeers, "Rarely has the phrase 'special effects'felt like such an oxymoron." The film might have been better titled "Around Epcot Center in 120 Minutes," says the Washington Post: "It has that cheesy, chintzy mid-Florida feel that we all know and love." (Buy tickets to Around the World in 80 Days.)

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Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Fox). This spoof of sports underdog movies starring Ben Stiller as a hypercompetitive fitness guru who wants to take over Vince Vaughn's gym is "the perfect movie for the Maxim audience," says Premiere: "raunchy in the extreme," "preoccupied with all things mammary or crotch-related, and virtually devoid of any intellectual content." Critics split on the central comic device, which entails hitting characters in the head and groin with fast-moving objects: "intrinsically funny," says the Miami Herald; "gets old after the first dozen times or so," argues the Philadelphia Inquirer. They can't agree on whether Dodgeball is satire or symptomatic of male insecurities, either. Praising Stiller, the New York Times says, "Nobody eviscerates the scary depths of male narcissism with such ferocity." But the Los Angeles Times thinks the film "reveals an almost pathological anxiety about homosexuality." (Buy tickets to Dodgeball.)

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To the 5 Boroughs, by the Beastie Boys (Capitol). Are the Beastie Boys old and boring? Yes, say critics who still yearn for the party-hearty days of Licensed to Ill. To the 5 Boroughs continues in the responsible, politicized vein the band established in the '90s; it's as if they've morphed from "the Three Stooges" into"a panel of appellate judges," complains the New York Times. Others, however, are happy to grow up with the Beasties: Listening to the album is "like getting together with old friends with whom you used to engage in stupid behavior, and finding the bond is still there even if the vices aren't,"Entertainment Weekly says mistily. The electro sound harks back to the early '80s, and so do the rhymes: Compared to current MCs, the Beasties are "Oldsmobiles trying to challenge bass-bumpin' Hummers," says the Houston Chronicle. Still, age has given their voices "intriguing texture"; Adam Yauch sounds "like a hip-hop Tom Waits," adds Rolling Stone. (Buy To the 5 Boroughs.)

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Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination, by Helen Fielding (Viking). Writing about "a heroine who is more Austin Powers than Jane Austen," Helen Fielding attempts to reinvent chick lit with this international spy mystery. But when Olivia Joules falls for a mysterious villain who may be Osama Bin Laden, critics raise their bad taste flags. "Fielding desperately flip-flops between fanciful descriptions of Wonderbra weapons and musings about the deadliness of ricin," says Stephanie Zacharek in Newsday; "her willful cluelessness is inappropriate at best and offensive at worst." This "may be the worst novel of the year," adds Entertainment Weekly, snarling that "Fielding has once again invented a new genre: terror trash." Only Newsweek remains sanguine, arguing that Olivia Joules is "clearly in the deliberately outlandish tradition of the James Bond books." Michiko Kakutani responds: Bond movies "never make the fatal mistake of pitting their heroes" against someone who could be "a member of something as real and deadly as Al Qaeda." (Buy Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination.)

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Oblivion: Stories, by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown). David Foster Wallace is back with "more claustrophobic portraits of self-pitying, self-absorbed individuals who are endlessly long-winded," says Michiko Kakutani. She's in the camp that says little has changed in his writing, as are the Houston Chronicle ("Wallace can't seem to write himself out of his own obsessions.") and Newsday ("nowadays," you can get his "reducto-ad-absurdum irony" from "any Radiohead song"). Others, however, spy new ground in this collection of eight stories. Wallace has dropped the footnotes, cut down the math, and told linear tales, says Time; "this is as close as the guy is going to get to beach reading." Not only is he more straightforward now, he's "finally freed himself from an ironic, hey-watch-me-produce-this-work-of-genius smarminess that tinged that early work," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. With such success, claims the Los Angeles Times, he even "explores human emotions with sensitivity." (Buy Oblivion: Stories.)

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Bloomsday. The 100th anniversary of the day on which James Joyce's Ulysses takes place (June 16) provoked a flood of articles, from the predictable— John Banville's reminiscences in the New York Times—to the conceptual (the four novelists who took on the intimidating task of creating a modern-day Bloomsday in New York magazine). But Reason's Tim Cavanaugh must deserve some kind of award for chutzpah: He managed to write no less than three different lengthy appreciations of the book, for Reason, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle. While the broad outline of each piece is the same—"Ulysses is enjoying a healthier life as an item of popular culture than it ever did as a literary masterpiece"—somehow Cavanaugh manages to avoid repeating himself in the particulars (well, almost).

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Transmission, by Hari Kunzru (Dutton). Can fiction still deliver news? This British author tries hard in his second novel, weaving Silicon Valley alienation, Bollywood musicals, and hypercapitalist London into a globalized tale of computer viruses run amok. But it's "an impossible project" to begin with, says Walter Kirn in the New York Times—the speed of modern life means that "all contemporary fiction is now, by definition, historical fiction." Other critics enjoy the novel's dizzying satire—the San Jose Mercury News praises "a dazzle of wit and color and snark"—but criticize the flatness of its characters: they "float like human props" through "catalogs of amusingly observed details," says the Wall Street Journal, and "the ending of the book cuts loose all moorings to recognizable reality."(Buy Transmission.)

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Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton (Pantheon). Alain de Botton's latest literary self-help manual trawls through the great thinkers to diagnose the envy and insecurity we feel from "keeping up with the Joneses." Critics mostly applaud what the Boston Globe calls an "economical," "lively and wise little book," but question de Botton's remedies, which fall into five categories: philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia. The Christian Science Monitor doubts whether they can stand up to the "brutal forces of acquisition," while the Oregonian says they all boil down to the homily, "realize that other's opinions are ultimately insignificant." And the New York Observer reprises a familiar criticism of de Botton—"he selects literary masterworks, pumps them up into highbrow fetish objects, then inserts them into a middlebrow self-help narrative"—and accuses him of a lack of respect for his sources. Steady on, says the Times Literary Supplement: Actually, "he knows a good deal about Renaissance thought, and his work is a sustained attempt to revive the great tradition of neoclassical moral philosophy." (Buy Status Anxiety.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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