Summary Judgment

George of the Desert


Three Kings (Warner Bros.). Excellent coverage all around for this offbeat Gulf War adventure-drama directed by David O. Russell (Flirting With Disaster). The “blisteringly funny” story of a group of soldiers who plot to steal hidden Iraqi bullion “works both as a rousing action adventure movie and as a subversion of the genre” (David Ansen, Newsweek). The stars, George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, and Spike Jonze, all give excellent turns, but the director is universally singled out: He has created “some kind of weird masterpiece” that “sings with the exhilaration of pure filmmaking” (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Strangely enough, the one negative review comes from the New York Times’ usually chipper Janet Maslin, who complains that the wacky camera style and tricks with film stock are “inadvertently distracting” and that the film doesn’t pick up speed until the second half, when it’s “too little, too late.” (Visit the film’s official site.)

Mystery, Alaska (Buena Vista Pictures). A “glorified Mighty Ducks for grown-ups” (Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today) pretty much sums up the reaction to this tale of a small-town hockey team that gets a chance to play the New York Rangers. It’s clichéd and corny, and several critics wonder why David E. Kelley, creator of so many successful TV shows (L.A. Law, Ally McBeal, The Practice), has had such a bad run in film (see Lake Placid) and why Russell Crowe and Burt Reynolds agreed to star in it. One defender–Larry King–speaks up, calling it “a dandy little epic” in USA Today. (Click here to find out more about Crowe.)


Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, by Susan Faludi (William Morrow). Faludi’s follow-up to her best-selling Backlash draws a few laudatory reviews, but most critics consider it far below the standard of her previous work. Faludi sets out to discover why men are so resistant to women’s advancement but ends up with a sympathetic portrait of the sorry state of American manhood, faulting the culture of “ornamentation” and the economy’s removal of men from meaningful jobs. On the positive side, “Faludi’s reportorial and literary skills unfold with a breathtaking confidence and beauty” (Elizabeth Gleick, Time). More often, though, critics call the book “didactic and highly simplistic” (Kakutani, the New York Times). Judith Shulevitz finds a flaw at the center of Faludi’s thesis: She “assumes something that’s no longer true: that America is in the throes of downsizing and loss”; and her focus on the marginalized and downsized distorts her view: “she should have said she was talking about class; she claimed to be talking about gender” (the New York Times Book Review). (Click here to listen to an interview with Faludi.)

Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, by Edmund Morris (Random House). Early reports of Morris’ heresy (he inserted a fictional version of himself into the story) appeared before the book was available, and critics picked up on it like sharks sensing chum. Maureen Dowd bit first, snorting that the “the futile search for the inner Reagan had driven his biographer barking mad” (the New York Times); Jonathan Yardley (the Washington Post) retorted that Dowd “seems incapable of a genuinely serious thought” and commanded her and others to “Shut yo’ mouf” until they had read the book. After Dutch became available, Peggy Noonan derided it as “a base botch of a book … at turns bilious and cold, corny and cynical, manic and flat” (the Wall Street Journal) and declared (as do many reviewers) that the book represents a tremendous lost opportunity, as Morris had 14 years of unlimited access to both Reagan and his papers. A few defend Morris: His unorthodox technique captures Reagan’s contradictions and makes for “a very strange, very interesting, very exasperating book, full to bursting of both lies and honesty” that calls to mind some of fiction’s most masterful unreliable narrators, such as “the madness of Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote” (Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker). Christopher Lehmann-Haupt writes a solidly positive review: “I can think of few conventional political biographies that bring their subjects’ pasts so richly alive” (the New York Times). But the Times’ other reviewer voices the conventional wisdom, calling it “a bizarre, irresponsible and monstrously self-absorbed book” (Michiko Kakutani). (Click here to read a discussion of Dutch in Slate’s “Book Club.”)

TheBig Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, by Nicholas Lemann (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Critics adore the first half of Lemann’s history of the SATs. But when he turns in the second half of the book to the conflict over affirmative action in California, they wonder, “what does all this have to do with the S.A.T.?” (Lehmann-Haupt, the New York Times). Dan Seligman writes in the Wall Street Journal that Lemann is “a dazzling writer in the clutches of a bad idea.” Others are kinder but note that while Lemann decries the unfairness of the present system (in which students’ scores correlate directly to the wealth and education of parents), “he doesn’t altogether define what should take its place” (Richard Lacayo, Time). (Click here to read Lemann’s articles in the Atlantic Monthly.)


“Sensation (The Brooklyn Museum of Art). The brouhaha over this show of young British artists, which appeared at the Royal Academy of Art in London two years ago, began when New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani blasted the exhibit as “sick” because it included, among other things, a portrait of the Virgin Mary splotched with elephant dung. Now the reviews of the exhibit are in, and although most critics defend the museum’s right to exhibit what it wants, few defend the art: “Appallingly witless and stupid” (Hilton Kramer, the New York Observer). Terry Teachout calls it “strictly adolescent stuff” that reveals that “British artists … are still trying, poor dears, to be outrageous” (the Washington Post). Rachel Whiteread’s work gets a sprinkling of praise, and some critics weakly contend that “the best work in the exhibition basically does what all good art should do: It makes you think” (Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times). But the lack of enthusiasm is palpable. And what’s more, many in the art world are less disgusted by the art in the show than by the fact that Charles Saatchi, the ad mogul who owns every piece, has found the perfect way to increase the return on his investment, as many of the works will go on the auction block at Christie’s when “Sensation” ends Jan. 9. (Click here to read a debate in Slate about whether the show is worth the fuss.)