She Hate Me (Sony). Spike Lee trolls for controversy once again, but this time nobody bites. She Hate Me begins as an exposé of corporate greed about an African-American vice president (Anthony Mackie) who's fired and hounded for being a whistle-blower. From there, though, the film morphs into a bizarre sex fantasy, as Mackie's character begins to make a living by impregnating lesbians. Stephen Holden calls it "the filmmaking equivalent of last-ditch marketing: grab everything in sight, roll it up into a big messy mud ball, and hurl it against the wall, hoping that something sticks." Not only is it incoherent, chimes in Entertainment Weekly, it's "racist, homophobic, utterly fake, and unbearably tedious." Particularly offensive is Lee's "depressingly Playboy Channel" treatment of lesbians, summed up by Anthony Lane as, "Maybe she hate me, but, hey, she love it really." Or maybe it's just that "he hate she." USA Today speaks for everyone: "Lee exhaust me." (Buy tickets to She Hate Me.)
The Manchurian Candidate (Paramount). Jonathan Demme's new version of John Frankenheimer's Cold War classic is like "Fahrenheit 9/11 remade as a superb political thriller," says the Onion. "Relevant enough to make you want to check the back of Dick Cheney's head for an input/output jack," according to the Miami Herald, the film replaces the original enemy, Communist China, with a sinister global corporation that's plotting to overthrow the government. As a paranoid Gulf War veteran, Denzel Washington "seesaws between frustrated military dignity and out-and-out nut job," says New York Newsday, while Meryl Streep pulls off a "double reverse inverted backflip" as a scheming senator (everyone's predicting Oscar). Nevertheless, nobody's particularly shocked by the film's conspiracy theories. As L.A. Weekly puts it, "What seemed daring 40 years ago has become routine in our post-assassination, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-9/11 world." (Read David Edelstein's review in Slate.) (Buy tickets to The Manchurian Candidate.)
The Village (Touchstone). Critics to M. Night Shyamalan: Drop the surprise twists. The director's movies "seem increasingly to be mapped from their endings backward," says Entertainment Weekly, and The Village is no exception. Set in a preindustrial Pennsylvania community, the film revolves around the threat posed by mysterious creatures lurking in the surrounding woods. Shyamalan's "mastery of classic suspense-movie framing and cutting is as impressive as ever," says A.O. Scott in the New York Times, but "his ideas are as sloppy and obvious as his direction is elegant and restrained." Many critics claim to have guessed the film's ending before the first hour was up, and it "isn't especially shocking or surprising," according to the Chicago Tribune. Audiences "may even feel cheated," warns the Hollywood Reporter. EW has a remedy: "Shyamalan may want to think about making his next movie with a twist beginning—a new writer." (Buy tickets to The Village.)
Garden State (Fox Searchlight). Scrubs star Zach Braff's feature screenwriting and directorial debut draws comparisons to The Graduate from just about everyone. The movie "obsessively refers to that 1967 generational landmark," says the New York Times, right down to music from Simon and Garfunkel. Playing Andrew Largeman, a struggling L.A. actor returning to New Jersey to face family demons, Braff has "caught the look and the sound of his blitzed, prematurely disillusioned generation," says L.A. Weekly. Offbeat encounters with Largeman's old high school buddies—variously in the police force, stoned, or rich—drive the narrative, and Entertainment Weekly enjoys these "loose, goof-about scenes of comic melancholy reinforced with the glue of quirkiness." But critics split over the big, sappy ending. "Braff's naive romanticism is also lovely proof of the film's innocent heart," gushes the Village Voice, but the Onion thinks Garden State"devolves into forced confrontations, symbol-laden big moments, and speeches that feel patched together from Monologues for Young Actors." (Buy tickets to Garden State.)
Amish in the City (UPN). The big news about this controversial "Big Brother for the horse-and-buggy set," in which five Amish kids on "rumspringa" (the tradition of exploring worldly pleasures before returning to the community) share a house with city teens, is that it doesn't mock the Amish. The show is "so pastoral and sensitive that viewers may fear they have stumbled on a PBS special about rural diversity," cackles Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times. In fact, "the Amish kids come off as open-minded and easygoing, while the city kids are bitchy, bigoted and generally a discredit to Western civilization," sighs the Miami Herald. That doesn't mean Amish traditions are respected, though: In real life, rumspringa "does not come with free food, housing, money and adventures provided," says USA Today: "These kids aren't experiencing life, they're experiencing reality TV."
The Irresponsible Self, by James Wood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Often reviewed in tandem with Dale Peck, Wood—the other literary critic with a takedown rep—comes out looking like the good cop in this new collection of essays. "Unlike some other unsparing critics," hints the San Jose Mercury News heavily, "Wood never seems intoxicated with his own venom." The New York Observer's Adam Begley throws roses onstage: "[L]et's drop the qualifiers and say it loud and clear: He's the best." But other critics are willing to take a few shots at Wood's polemic against "hysterical realism"—novels overstuffed with information and underpopulated with characters. Salon's Laura Miller attacks his monkish taste ("morbidly sensitive even for an Englishman") as out of touch with contemporary reality, and the Times Literary Supplement similarly chides him as "a critical Canute, ordering the tide back, and hoping to see his beloved nineteenth-century forms emerging like woodhenges from the receding sea." (The Irresponsible Self.)
n+1. Jumping into the debate over the state of literary criticism is new biannual lit mag n+1, which takes swipes at all sides as it surveys "The Intellectual Situation." The mag's design is modeled on the Partisan Review, but its attempt to historicize snark is more refreshing than Sven Birkerts'recent yearnings for the golden age of that magazine. n+1 on the New Republic: "TNR got the best people and encouraged their worst instincts"—and James Wood's place within TNR: "In the company of other critics who wrote with such seriousness, at such length, in such old-fashioned terms, he would have been less burdened with the essentially parodic character of his enterprise"—as well as Dale Peck's: "So many forms of extremism turn into their opposite at the terminal stage." And n+1 on McSweeney's: "the innovation of the Eggersards was their creation of a regressive avant-garde"; and The Believer: "Mere belief is hostile to the whole idea of thinking."
Rescue Me (FX). Television's exploration of 9/11 themes continues with this "shrink's-eye view of firefighters' post-traumatic stress" starring Denis Leary. The Washington Post calls Rescue Me"risky" and the San Francisco Chronicle says it's "begging for trouble," but even an episode dealing with homosexuality on the force doesn't raise any bad-taste flags. The show nets solemn, high-toned pull-quotes—"a modern, full-blooded take on what it means to be a man," says the Seattle Times; "echoes with bitter, terrified laughter," intones the Miami Herald—and "blowhard-par-excellence" Leary gets plenty of raves, too. The Detroit Free Press praises his "dark comic intensity and emotional force," while the Post admires "a tender side that has rarely been seen." For some critics, however, he's the deal-breaker: The Los Angeles Times says Rescue Me is "a misguided gesture of goodwill" "that serves Leary's vanity in addition to his heart." (Read Dana Stevens' take in Slate.)
Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf). "Summertime is Hiaasen time," sighs the Los Angeles Times. And indeed, most reviewers happily laze by the metaphorical pool and guzzle down the author's 10th thriller, a potent cocktail of marijuana bales and albino pythons set in South Florida. Everybody's so busy listing all the kooky details that it's hard to figure out the plot, but suffice it to say it's "so dense with absurdities and outrages that you're tempted to think [Hiaasen's] word processor's been outfitted with a sleaze compactor," according to Newsday. In the New York Times, an intoxicated Janet Maslin calls Skinny Dip a "screwball delight" and puts Hiaasen in the company of "Preston Sturges, Woody Allen and S. J. Perelman," while Michael Dirda of the Washington Post thinks Evelyn "Waugh would certainly have admired Hiaasen's ironic wit." The Chicago Sun-Times has a less flattering comparison in mind: It says Hiaasen's so formulaic, he's "Robert Ludlum without the passports and border checkpoints." (Skinny Dip.)