Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Oct. 1 2004 2:14 PM

Critics Hate Huckabees

Most say David O. Russell's latest lacks heart.

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I Heart Huckabees (Fox Searchlight). David O. Russell's screwball comedy about a poet-activist (Jason Schwartzman) who hires a pair of "existential detectives" (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to help him figure out the meaning of life "is like Woody Allen, but for the semiotics generation," says Carina Chocano in the Los Angeles Times. Fans like LA Weekly call Huckabees"divinely nuts," but more critics think it's all head, no heart. The actors burp out the soda-pop dialogue "with a vengeance," says Entertainment Weekly, "but they never become human beings we care about." Schwartzman's battles with the soulless superstore of the title (represented by Jude Law and Naomi Watts) add a strong anticorporate theme that "captures liberal-left despair with astonishingly good humor," according to Manohla Darghis. But David Denby thinks the film shares "an element of liberal self-pity" with John Sayles'Silver City: If Bush prevails, future historians should start looking here "for signs of virtuous defeatism." (Buy tickets to I Heart Huckabees.)

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Desperate Housewives (ABC). Is this satirical drama about four bored suburban housewives pro- or antifeminist? The Chicago Tribune's critics duel: Maureen Ryan complains the characters "seem like museum curios from the Donna Reed era," while Sid Smith says that, "in satire, all characters are reduced to stick figures." (The Los Angeles Times finds the satire stale: "[L]oveless marriages, killing boredom, child-induced hysteria, sexual adventuring… So what else is new?") Alessandra Stanley also thinks Desperate Housewives"turns the clock back to pre-Betty Friedan America"—and it's just one of many shows bringing sexism (and racism) back to television. The New Republic's Lee Siegel has a longer cultural moment in mind: He argues that the frustrated housewife of 19th-century literature has been supplanted by the bliss-following, home-wrecking Young American Woman. But these "attractive, sexy, sexual" housewives are fighting back—"Britney, look to your laurels"—and in depicting this war, the show "portrays the dark side of feminism."

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Shark Tale (DreamWorks). "Like something you wrap in yesterday's newspaper," the latest round in DreamWorks' animated battle with Pixar is a stale attempt to swim in Finding Nemo's waters. Spoofing Mafia movies, Shark Tale stars Will Smith as a fish who becomes an underwater celebrity after mistakenly getting credit for killing a shark; Robert De Niro voices the head of the local shark mob (Martin Scorsese pops up, too, along with Angelina Jolie and Renee Zellweger). A.O. Scott is palpably bored, damning the film as "reasonably good fun, even if, in the end, it's not really very interesting." But "the characters are underdeveloped even for 2-D players," says Entertainment Weekly, and the jokes are predictable: "It's as if a team full of story editors sat around a whiteboard listing every fish gag they could think of," yawns Premiere. Ultimately, concludes the Wall Street Journal, "the story leaves you snoozing with the fishes." (Buy tickets to Shark Tale.)

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Ladder 49 (Buena Vista). This film starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix * as a heroic fireman who flashes back through his life while trapped in a burning building is "the firefighting equivalent of an Army recruitment commercial," says the Washington Post. Critics aren't signing up: Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum calls Ladder 49"a quiet salute," but everyone else has compassion fatigue. The Chicago Tribune dismisses a "condescending and cloying melodrama," the Philadelphia Inquirer scoffs at "a series of Hallmark-card platitudes" and Manohla Dargis rails against "platitudinous rubbish." (As for the star: "Travolta, as ever, is Travolting — in a good way," says Carina Chocano. "He exudes an oily charm that's at once irresistible and disturbing.") "Firefighters deserve a better movie," protests the Onion—this one "feels numbingly familiar." (Buy tickets to Ladder 49.)

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The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin). Philip Roth has reinvented himself once again. (His new alternative history fuses an imagined fascist Lindbergh presidency with a tender account of Roth's own childhood.) But reinvented how? Culturally, by "recanting" his earlier satires of "piety-spouting, finger-shaking elders" with "a novel about how the Jewish parents were right all along," as The New Yorker suggests? Formally, by linking the "personal concerns" of his early fiction with "the sweeping historical tableau" of his recent American trilogy, as Michiko Kakutani observes? Stylistically, by writing in a "frightened and overly cautious and needlessly loquacious" voice, as a puzzled New York notes? Or politically, by taking "a definitive turn … into liberal orthodoxy," as Bookforum complains? Most consistently, despite Roth's protestations to the contrary, critics can't resist reading The Plot Against America as a commentary on our own times—"the 'perpetual fear' he describes is in some way a cousin to the fear we live with now," says Frank Rich. (The Plot Against America.)

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Smile, by Brian Wilson (Nonesuch). It "seemed like a terrible idea. Instead, it's a triumph," says Robert Christgau, summing up the rapturous response to this newly recorded version of rock's most famous lost album. Abandoned in 1967 when Wilson faced drug and sanity problems, Smile was his attempt to outdo the Beatles back when concept albums were cool. Thirty-seven years later, the gorgeous harmonies reduce critics to gibberish—"a sound as majestic as a mountain, resonating for the ages," gasps the Philadelphia Inquirer—while the baroque song fragments now cohere into "an episodic western movie for the mind," according to the Chicago Tribune. Time has lent Wilson's work extra meaning, too, turning it into "a beautifully modulated, funny, sometimes unintentional meditation on a failed United States and counterculture," says the Village Voice. Still, there are nagging doubts. The Boston Globe thinks Smile is "too scattered and inscrutable," and Jim Derogatis says Pet Sounds was better than this "intriguing footnote." ( Smile.)

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Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley (Random House). The prolific humorist's latest novel dances merrily where satirists usually fear to tread: the Middle East. Buckley writes about a fictional Royal Kingdom where women are brutally subjugated and a State Department functionary starts a feminist media crusade. "It's really pretty astonishing that Buckley has produced a comedy out of this stuff," says the Seattle Times, but everyone agrees that Florence of Arabia is very funny. (The book "actually gets comic mileage out of discussing the best rocks to use" for stoning women to death, marvels Janet Maslin.) Nevertheless, "Yucks as un-PC as these have not been heard in many a year," notes the Washington Post, and taste questions do arise. Entertainment Weekly thinks Buckley "can't joke his way out of the horrors that would occur," but Caryn James says the resulting tension "allows the novel to speak, in its playful way, to the anxieties of the present moment." (Florence of Arabia.)

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Sweat and Suit, by Nelly (Universal). The St. Lousian rapper follows R. Kelly and OutKast aboard the split personality bandwagon with these two chart-topping CDs aimed at the dance floor and the living room, respectively. "If OutKast had brought together Tim McGraw, Spandau Ballet, Christina Aguilera and Lil' Flip, they'd be called geniuses," observes Kelefa Sanneh in the New York Times, but Nelly's persona is less pretentious—he's "that jock in algebra class, the affable, kind of dim one with an easy grin," according to the Houston Chronicle. His laid-back style inspires both indulgence—"it's hard to begrudge him a single toke," says Time—and irritation: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution thinks "lazy sequels aren't confined to movie theaters."Entertainment Weekly has generic gripes about "generic boasts" (equally predictably, many critics also claim the albums would have been better as "a single disc"), but the Washington Post has the bottom line: There are "more sharp hooks" here than at "a Bassmaster's tournament." (Sweat and Suit.)

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The Divine Husband, by Francisco Goldman (Atlantic Monthly Press). This "alchemist's brew of history, fiction and legend" relates the romance between real-life Cuban revolutionary poet José Martí and a fictional nun. Everyone admires Goldman's intricate achievement—the narrative "doubles back on itself, takes up and reworks strands like a Bach invention," says Bookforum—but no one really cares for it. This is "a laborious soap opera," says the Miami Herald; it's "so involuted, so caught up in its own constructions, that it is difficult to enjoy," according to Lee Siegel. There's just too much for most critics—"too many ideas, too many subplots, too much brightly tinted but often tangential cleverness," says the Baltimore Sun—and the stew is overly familiar. "One Hundred Years of Solitude has a lot to answer for," sighs Michael Dirda. (The Divine Husband.)

Correction, Oct. 11, 2004: This item originally misstated that John Travolta starred "as a heroic fireman who flashes back through his life while trapped in a burning building." It is, in fact, Joaquin Phoenix who does this. Return to the corrected item.

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