Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Oct. 22 2004 2:07 PM

I'll Stay Home for Surviving Christmas

Ben Affleck's new movie gets panned.

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Surviving Christmas (DreamWorks). This comedy about an obnoxious yuppie (Ben Affleck) who pays a family (headed by James Gandolfini) $250,000 to help him live the idyllic Christmas of his dreams is "absolutely awesome in its relentless mediocrity," says the Washington Post. Critics line up to go nuclear, with the Village Voice winning the arms race: "This ghastly comedy emits the subliminal whine of a sucking chest wound." Gandolfini's performance elicits nothing but generous silence, but the hapless Affleck has no such luck. He "currently sports a moussed brunet thatch of a hairdo similar in texture to a 1970s Flokati rug," chortles Entertainment Weekly. "You may cheer when James Gandolfini bashes him with a shovel," adds the Dallas Observer mercilessly—"sadly, the movie continues."USA Today sums it up Kerry-style: "This is the wrong movie at the wrong time." (Buy tickets to Surviving Christmas.)

The Grudge (Columbia/Sony). Sarah Michelle Gellar stars in this Hollywood remake of a Japanese horror movie about a house full of evil demons. It's more baffling than scary, say most critics. The "surreal visuals" and "blood curdling sound design" are "like the nightmare visions of a twisted music-video director," says Premiere, and there's "no logical justification for anything that happens." It's "less a film than a terror delivery system " or "a spectral roller coaster," adds the Onion—"but is anyone really afraid of roller coasters?" Apparently the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is: Without an explanation, it claims, The Grudge "simply is. That's what makes it really scary." Director Takashi Shimizu has now remade this film five times in various different versions: "Japanese demons turn out to be as in need of fresh material as their worn-out Western counterparts," observes LA Weekly. (Buy tickets to The Grudge.)

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Sideways (Fox Searchlight). Alexander Payne follows up About Schmidt with a buddy movie that's getting the kind of raves critics usually reserve for obscure foreign films. Peter Rainer thinks it's "the sweetest, funniest, most humane movie I've seen all year." Manohla Dargis says Payne's emergence as a top filmmaker "isn't just cause for celebration; it's a reason for hope."Sideways stars Paul Giamatti as a loser wine buff ("men will know this man, because, at one time or another, many of us have been this man," says David Denby—just when we'd managed to forget about American Sucker!) and Thomas Haden Church as his egotistical actor friend. They're "an inspired comic team," says Newsweek, as are co-stars Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen—who's "a revelation," according to Peter Travers. Entertainment Weekly concludes: "It's damned hard to resist piling on the grape-based metaphors in admiration. So here's a toast to Sideways. Drink deep." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Sideways.)

Michiko Kakutani, sportswriter.New York Times' sportswriters have always been free to wax poetic: Selena Roberts famously won praise for her purple prose. But the Yankees' collapse to the Red Sox was apparently so devastating, the rupture in the cosmic order so violent, it required the services of the paper's main book critic. Like a legendary starter brought on in relief for Game 7, Michiko Kakutani materialized on this morning's sports page to limn the tragedy. The "morals to be drawn from the narrative" of Yankee defeat turn out to be little different than those supplied daily by the average sportswriter—"hubris," comeuppance for trying to buy success. Presumably, value-added literary content is represented by talk of "Old myths … left to blow about the chilly field at Yankee Stadium along with empty Cracker Jack boxes and tattered hot dog wrappers," and none-too-subtle references to a coming "winter of discontent." "Summary Judgment" looks forward to Janet Maslin on the Mets.

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The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst (Bloomsbury USA). The surprise winner of this year's Booker Prize (beating out hot favorite Cloud Atlas), set in Thatcher-era London, revolves around a young gay man caught up in cocaine-and-cash culture. Allusions to Henry James tie The Line of Beauty to the year's most unlikely literary trend, and critics swoon almost as much for Hollinghurst's sentences as the Master's. The Los Angeles Times calls Hollinghurst's phrases "the jewels of the novel," and Michael Dirda says he's "singularly adept at choosing just the right words." But this is also "a work of scathing historical revisionism," says the Village Voice, that "exposes the reckless vanity" of the '80s. In revisiting this era, Hollinghurst picks up where his debut novel The Swimming-Pool Library left off, creating a sort of de facto sequel. But this time around, he addresses AIDS—an important inclusion, says the Independent: "[T]he fact of Aids gives the book its gravity, raising it above an initial impression of mere satire." (The Line of Beauty.)

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The Dark Tower, by Stephen King (Donald M. Grant/Scribner). The seventh volume of King's "double-black-diamond ski run for fantasy nerds" finally ends the series he considers the key to his entire work. Is the conclusion —traditionally his weakness—worth the labor of 4,000 pages? * This is "the best ending King has written," says the Philadelphia Inquirer; "it more than delivers on what has been promised," affirms the San Francisco Chronicle. The journey is a different story. Aside from the Washington Post, which offers a sop to King's literary ambitions, calling The Dark Tower"a humane, visionary epic and a true magnum opus," critics are dubious about the saga's coherence. The Houston Chronicle criticizes King for "passing off mumbo jumbo as metaphysical profundity." The best compliment the New York Times can muster for the series is amazement at "the sheer absurdity of its existence." (The Dark Tower.)

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Hip: The History, by John Leland (Ecco). Much if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest-type rumination on the ineffability of hip prefaces reviews of this cultural history. "Such a book might as well be its subject's obituary," says Luc Sante in the Village Voice: "It's like broadcasting the rituals of the lodge, or maybe spelling down all the names of the godhead." (On his own site, Leland responds by calling Sante's criticism "intellectually chickenshit.") Moving from the Beats and jazz through punks and slackers, Leland provides a potted history of "just about every stoner available to magpie research," according to the Los Angeles Times. Despite all the detail, "you never really feel like you are getting anywhere in understanding what hip means," complains Newsday. And then there's the author's fondness for hip slang. Too often, Leland sounds "like a dad forming a 'W' with thumbs and forefingers and saying "whatever,'" scoffs the San Francisco Chronicle. (Hip: The History.)

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The Darling, by Russell Banks (HarperCollins). The latest from the author of Affliction tracks a self-absorbed American woman's adventures in war-torn Liberia. Everyone admires Banks' portrayal of the country. "No one writes better descriptions of Africa," says Newsweek; Michiko Kakutani compares his "excruciating," "visceral and harrowing" glimpses of Liberian life to V.S. Naipaul's work. Hannah, the unsympathetic narrator, is more polarizing. Three-hundred and ninety-two pages are "a long time to be in the company of someone who is, essentially, uninterested in other people beyond their effect on her," complains the Chicago Sun-Times. Yet, like Albert Camus, Banks has succeeded at something few authors dare, says the Boston Globe: "to make engaging the tale of a character dead at her core." Hannah's narrative "embodies Aristotelian catharsis," adds the Baltimore Sun—"the reader is moved not only to pity, but to fear." (The Darling.)

Correction, Oct. 25, 2004: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said The Dark Tower was 4,000 words. It is 4,000 pages. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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