Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Oct. 8 2004 3:32 PM

Jelinek the Obscure

Sex and fury make for a Nobel Prize winner.

Photo of Elfriede Jelinek

Elfriede who? The Nobel Foundation broke tradition and awarded this year's Nobel Prize for literature to a woman (for only the 10th time), but the practice of awarding it to an obscure European author was maintained. Americans' most likely point of reference for Elfriede Jelinek's work is the film adaptation of her sadomasochistic 1988 novel The Piano Teacher, a book that (surprise, surprise) Michiko Kakutani didn't like: Its "violent fantasies seem willfully perverse." But the foundation is obviously more open to role play, praising her "pitiless world where the reader is confronted with a locked-down regime of violence and submission." And the Guardian argues that her "rage, anger and disgust" are not actually "pessimistic," but rather represent "a quiet optimism." The funniest summary of her work may be this review of her 1988 book Women as Lovers (Masks): "What shallow, covetous creatures women are, is what Jelinek seems to say. It doesn't matter if they don't enjoy sex; they don't deserve it, and anyway, someday we'll all be dead."

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Friday Night Lights (Universal). "The rare football movie that runs up the score,"Friday Night Lights offers a gritty take on the fanaticism surrounding high-school gridiron in a small West Texas town. Yes, it "takes you so deep into the action, you can hear the bones crunch," burbles the ever ad-ready Peter Travers—but more critics are attracted to its skepticism about the cost of football glory. The characters don't get quite enough time to develop, say some, but director Peter Berg compensates by using "rough, handheld shots of flat landscape, industrial nothingness, and the exertions of spangled cheerleaders to convey as much about wins and losses as any human-interest subplots," according to Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum. Billy Bob Thornton wins universal raves as the quietly reflective coach. His pivotal halftime speech is "a thing to behold," admires the Philadelphia Inquirer, serving up "tobacco-chewin' Texas Zen," with "unwavering gentleness." (Buy tickets to Friday Night Lights.)

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Taxi (Fox). Perhaps Jimmy Fallon's first leading movie role will be his last. Taxi"is such a rusty vehicle that it might as well have been a showcase for Rob Schneider or Chris Kattan," says Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman. Fallon's clueless cop is paired with Queen Latifah's wannabe NASCAR-racer taxi driver in this farcical comedy. Supermodel Gisele Bündchen also shows up as the leader of a gang of Brazilian bank robbers—she's" terrible in a bold and wonderful way," applauds the Boston Globe. The film, which entails many car chases, "has two speeds," informs the Philadelphia Inquirer: "pedal-to-metal and screeching halt. The former is guaranteed to make the audience carsick, the latter to give it whiplash." Latifah fulfills her usual role as "irrepressible life force," but she has little chemistry with Fallon. The Miami Herald says, "[H]is utter lack of personality generates a vacuum that the movie cannot overcome." (Buy tickets to Taxi.)

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Raise Your Voice (New Line). This "corny, wading-pool-deep tale" of an aspiring singer (Hilary Duff) who defies her parents orders and goes to L.A. to pursue the big time is no Fame, say contemptuous critics. It "doesn't have a single authentic moment, from its canned tragedy setup" to its "power ballad finale," says the Chicago Reader. Duff, already mauled once this year for A Cinderella Story, fares no better this time out. She makes Entertainment Weekly long for "the comparatively Dostoyevskian depths of Sandra Dee," and the Miami Herald complains that "her emotive repertoire consists of an adorable, blinding smile." As for her singing voice, "whenever she goes a cappella, she peels the wallpaper," recoils the Onion. (Buy tickets to Raise Your Voice.)

Book cover

Chronicles, Vol. 1, by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster). The early word on Bob Dylan's memoirs is ecstatic. Janet Maslin finds Chronicles, Vol. 1"flabbergasting," the AP says it's "chockfull of entertaining anecdotes," and the Boston Globe calls the singer "a great reporter with a talent for vivid detail." The first volume of three, which focuses on the early and late stages of his career, contains few revelations—Dylan unfortunately devotes little space to his legendary 1966 motorcycle accident but offers plenty of poker tips. Yet critics are charmed by the "disarmingly raconteurial" style: He loves "hanging independent clauses at the end of his sentences, decorating them like he would a song with a guitar lick," says the San Francisco Chronicle. With key dates and names often missing, "sometimes you need to be a Dylanologist to know which direction the story goes," admits the Minneapolis Star Tribune. But Dylan is mining "a different kind of memory," says Maslin: He's "lucid without being linear," "both straight-shooting and deeply fanciful." ( Chronicles, Vol. 1.)

Book cover

America (The Book), by Jon Stewart et al. (Warner). "Could I please be the first to nominate 'America (The Book)' for this year's history Pulitzer?" asks Tom Carson in the New York Times Book Review. (He's serious, we think.) This send-up of junior-high textbooks about the history of democracy gets the expected raves—"the devil's own comedic handiwork," says Janet Maslin—but critics also ponder the meaning of Stewart's success. Carson says Stewart has supplanted the Onion by fusing the "very different" traditions of "self-deprecating Jewish wit and Ivy League nattiness" to invent "something new: collegiate gallows humor." And the San Francisco Chronicle's David Kipen critiques the default refusal of satirists to take a stand and encourages Stewart to do the "truly risky thing": spend some of his "political capital" on a presidential endorsement and "see how far it goes?" That would be a mistake, implies the Dallas Morning News, because Stewart is not really a political satirist—his "real gold mine" is "politics in the media." (America.)

Book cover

Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt (Norton). Does the world need another book about Shakespeare? Apparently it does. This "successful attempt to be the layperson's Bard bio of choice for the next decade" (Chicago Sun-Times) overcomes the lack of hard biographical evidence with an "extraordinary hybrid" of historical context and close readings. The Boston Globe reminds us that Greenblatt's theories are ultimately mostly "conjecture and speculation, much of it credible and convincing, much of it not." But Laura Miller argues that this is "such a graceful effort to spin a life out of a few scraps of paper that only a churl would be unpersuaded by it." (Shakespeare bios are more of a "performing" than "scholarly" genre, adds Adam Gopnik.) The Los Angeles Times is alone in questioning Greenblatt's methodology: By distilling the autobiography from the work, he follows "the conventions of celebrity lives in our time," an approach that shortchanges the Bard's "immense powers of empathy and self projection." (Will in the World.)

Book cover

The Love Wife, by Gish Jen (Knopf). Jen's third novel will bring her "the larger audience she deserves," says the Philadelphia Inquirer. A "deeper, richer, darker, far more complex and mature" variation on her earlier work, The Love Wife tracks the identity struggles of the Wong family after its matriarch insinuates a newly immigrated Chinese woman into the household, hoping she'll usurp the son's American wife. Though the novel deals with big themes, its characters remain "wonderfully idiosyncratic," says Michiko Kakutani—defined more by "love and jealousy and rebellion" than race and ethnicity. Jen's technique of switching between voices "reads like a play," says the Seattle Times, which admires her "playful and comic versatility." But Craig Seligman, who strikes the lone sour note, doesn't like the strategy: "For the first time, Jen's writing is bland and unremarkable," he complains. "In striving to create credible voices for her characters, she's abandoned her own." (The Love Wife.)

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