The critical buzz on Stranger Than Fiction, Fur, and $491 million worth of art.

The critical buzz on Stranger Than Fiction, Fur, and $491 million worth of art.

The critical buzz on Stranger Than Fiction, Fur, and $491 million worth of art.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Nov. 10 2006 2:50 PM

Novel Subject

The critical buzz on Stranger Than Fiction, Fur, and $491 million worth of art.

Stranger Than Fiction.
Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction 

Stranger Than Fiction (Columbia Pictures). Critics are mixed on Marc Forster's latest, which features Will Ferrell as an IRS agent who finds out he's trapped in Emma Thompson's novel, and has invited some none-too-favorable comparisons to Charlie Kaufman's work. The film "teems with ideas both literary and existential, which might make it unbearably precious, were it not redeemed by woozy charm and some serious acting from Will Ferrell," opines LA Weekly's Ella Taylor. The New York Times' A.O. Scott allows for a "few moments of pleasantly jarring absurdity" but concludes, "Rather than jarring or deepening your perceptions of the world, Stranger Than Fiction settles into a cozy, comforting realm that really isn't very strange at all."Slate's Dana Stevens is unenthused, sighing that Fiction is "a maddening contraption, a high-concept story so overwrought and overthought that you want to thwack at it like a piñata to get at the sweet romantic comedy inside." (Buy tickets to Stranger Than Fiction.)

Fur.
Nicole Kidman in Fur 

Fur (Picturehouse). This faux biopic, starring Nicole Kidman as photographer Diane Arbus and Robert Downey Jr. as her fictional neighbor Lionel Sweeney, is "a folly, though not a dishonorable one," reflects the New York Times' Manohla Dargis. Critics seem bemused by the liberties director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson (who previously teamed up on Secretary) have taken with Arbus' life, though the Los Angeles Times notes, "Whenever you get too irritated at Fur's pretensions, the remarkable acting of its two stars pulls you back in and keeps you watching." Not all the critics are forgiving. In Rolling Stone, the often felicitous Peter Travers sniffs, "The movie feels like it's still in the darkroom." (Buy tickets to Fur.) (Read Slate's "Culturebox" on Fur.)

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$491 million art sale. Wednesday evening's auction at Christie's exceeded all expectations—and the previous record for an art auction by more than $200 million. The sale included works by Klimt, Gauguin, Kirchner, and Schiele, and observers discussed the thirst for works of particular provenance. "From the beginning of the sale it became indeed clear that sizable works by renowned artists were being targeted regardless of style, as in some gigantic hunt for trophies," commented the International Herald Tribune. Forbes remarked upon the increased frenzy worldwide for desirable works of art, noting, "Many works that art experts considered ordinary received well above their high estimate." The sale also included several Klimts recently reclaimed by heirs of a family from whom they had been seized by the Nazis during World War II.

What is the What by Dave Eggers.

Dave Eggers, What Is the What (McSweeney's). Eggers' new book, a mix of fact and fiction, sees him moving away from the over-cleverness the McSweeney's editor has sometimes been accused of. Instead, this book about one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan is a "moving, frightening, improbably beautiful book," according to Time. Eggers' latest is a "startling act of literary ventriloquism," says the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, a book that reminds readers "just how eloquently the author can write about loss and mortality and sorrow." And New York magazine calls the book"stunning," observing that it "forces us to examine our world and ourselves, and how our struggle for identity is more of a collective battle than we're often willing to admit." (Buy What Is the What.)

Heidi Julavits, The Uses of Enchantment

Heidi Julavits, The Uses of Enchantment (Doubleday). The Believer editor's third novel, about a teenage girl who may or may not have been abducted by an older man, has critics reflecting on the nature of adolescence. The New York Times Book Review maintains that "the book is most successful at exploring the psychology of a particular type of teenage girl, an apparently colorless figure who reveals under pressure a perverse bravado." The Village Voice sees a darker side to Julavits' protagonist: "Julavits seems to valorize deceitfulness as a creative act, and often a kind one, while honesty comes off as shallow and hurtful." Likewise, Salon argues Julavits implies that "in their aptitude for manipulation, adolescent girls both hold all the power and are victims of their own desires. It's a conservative view and one that doesn't give much room for the gray area most teenagers live in." The New York Times' Janet Maslin takes perhaps the harshest view, writing that although Enchantment is an "assertively smart, trickily constructed novel," it is also "a frustratingly open-ended book that winds up displaying much more convoluted cleverness than wisdom." (Buy The Uses of Enchantment.)

Gore Vidal, Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir

Gore Vidal, Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir (Doubleday). One of the last remaining giants of 20th-century American literature has published a follow-up to his 1995 memoir, Palimpsest, and a few of the anecdotes have been picked up by the gossip columns —even though the events he describes happened decades ago. The critical reviews so far are mixed, though. The London Times remains impressed by the 81-year-old author: "Vidal's defining gift is to express himself with greater fluency, potency, erudition and sharp focus than God should allow one man. He is original, funny and outrageous." But the Los Angeles Times yawns, "Despite some exquisite passages and frisky prose, Point to Point Navigation betrays a diminishing attention span." (Buy Point to Point Navigation.)

Keith Urban, Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing

Keith Urban, Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing (Capitol). Nicole Kidman's husband made headlines recently for entering rehab, though it's unlikely that his fans will hold it against him. "Imagine Daryl Hall with Nashville guitar skills and an Australian's fascination with Southern culture, and you have Keith Urban,"Rolling Stone declares. In the New York Times, Kelefa Sanneh seems engaged, if not totally blown away, by the mostly "well-made and slightly unpredictable album." Writing in Entertainment Weekly, Slate music critic Jody Rosen places Urban in the unoffensively mediocre camp, comparing him with MOR (that's middle-of-the-road) maestro Phil Collins: "Like Collins, Urban is a bit blah. His albums leave no lasting impression and offer few surprises; the music stacks clichés on clichés." (Buy Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing.)

Kevin Federline, Playing With Fire

Kevin Federline, Playing With Fire (Federation Records). If this is a bid to be taken seriously as a hip-hop artist, critics aren't buying it. Perhaps the least damning review comes from Chuck Eddy in Billboard, who comments that Federline's attempts at "playing the victim allows him a tried-and-true hip-hop window to 'keep it real.' "Rolling Stone is less circumspect, calling Fire a "tragicomedy" whose only bright spot is some "sexy purring" on one track by Federline's wife, Britney Spears. And on Idolator, a music blog owned by Gawker Media (where I'm an editor), commenter rad_matter sighs, "Let's just say I'm amazed I made it to 'Lose Control' without smashing my head into my computer right now." Good thing Federline's got a sugar mama. (Buy Playing With Fire.)