Summary Judgment

Forget Lamborghinis

Writers solve their midlife crises with a spate of confessional memoirs.

Middle-Aged Memoirs. “We’re starting to miss Elizabeth Wurtzel,” says the New York Observer. Citing confessional books and articles by David Denby, Katha Pollitt, Neil Strauss, and Joyce Wadler, the weekly spots a trend: “Comfortably employed, middle-aged writers” are latching onto the twentysomething strategy of publishing “queasy, painful-to-read, subtextually hostile ’way too much information’ scenes from their own lives.” The New York Post picks up on the theme, asking a group of recent memoir writers (including Denby), “just how much info” is too much? (Answer: They have no regrets.) Denby does complain about the media fixation on his Internet porn fixation, and Laura Miller piously jumps to his defense in the New York Times, saying “the revelation is only scandalous if you believe that New Yorker staffers are a kind of secular priesthood.” Miller goes on to praise “a new, cannier breed” of memoirists, like Brad Land (Goat), who vividly re-create past experiences but avoid drawing tired conclusions about them.

The Grammys. “So much for the schlock and awe,” said the Los Angeles Times’ Carina Chocano. The 46th Grammys, timidly broadcast on five-minute tape delay, “were the picture of circumspect mutual admiration and corporate synergy.” Nobody got naked, “unless you count a dude in Parliament Funkadelic.” Justin Timberlake’s apology for exposing Janet Jackson’s breast at the Super Bowl “exemplified the career-first mentality of his generation,” mourned the New York Times. (“Janet stayed home alone [I hope] doing tequila shots and flashing her tits at the TV,” said Slate’s Dana Stevens.) The one bright spot: “Hip-hop has finally been fully embraced by the Grammys,” said the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn. And blogging has been embraced by Neal Pollack, who parodied the self-congratulatory tone of the medium when covering the Grammys for Salon: “We’re making gossip on our own termz now. Saggymelongate was last week.” Gawker found his mimicry “kind of eerie“; others were flattered.

Call of the Mall, by Paco Underhill (Simon & Schuster). This self-described “retail anthropologist” is founder and CEO of Envirosell, a consulting firm that advises retailers on shopping patterns. Yet he’s “a pessimist” when it comes to malls, says the Wall Street Journal, “seeing many squandered opportunities and loathing much of the mall experience.” (The big problems: a conflict between real estate developers, who only want to maximize retail space, and merchants, who have little control over their stores’ aesthetics.) Reviewers find this “thorough and sometimes amusing survey” “downright entertaining“—Underhill “loves to shop,” says the Washington Post; he just prefers city streets—but they eventually tire of the author’s company. The Journal thinks “first-rate insights” are dulled by repetition and overwhelmed by dialogues with “mall-walking companions, from fellow experts to giggly teens.” And the Houston Chronicle complains the book is written for retailers, not consumers: “One gets the sense that this book functions best as a promotional brochure for Envirosell.” (Call of the Mall.)

The Rules of Engagement, by Anita Brookner (Random House). “Each year brings forth a new Brookner novel,” says the New York Times, “with the regularity of a ticking metronome atop a dusty piano in a dark London room.”The Rules of Engagement, which pits two Englishwomen—one proudly repressed, one in futile search of fulfillment—against each other, is yet another “tale of helplessness, subjugation and renunciation,” according to the Washington Post. The Times finds Brookner’s closed universe “immensely reassuring, in a rather dismal manner,” and the Atlantic Monthly says that, like the work of Joseph Cornell and Nicholson Baker, her “novels have become obsessive miniatures that work best if you accept them on their own strange terms.” But the New Republic wants to let some air into that dark London room: Brookner “knows her characters’ plights so well that the novel seems to lack any sensation of urgency. The prose is confident, at times elegant, but too often it feels rigged, and exasperatingly fatalistic.” (Buy The Rules of Engagement.)

The Dreamers (Fox Searchlight). Bernardo Bertolucci revives the NC-17 rating as a publicity device with this film about three movie-obsessed teens who indulge in incest and sex games in a Paris flat during the student revolution of 1968. But this is no Last Tango in Paris: The sex is too “listless” for David Denby’s Internet-hardened taste, and New York’s Peter Rainer wants “less ‘68 and more 69.” In returning to his past, the director is “so drunk on déjá vu he has made a movie that’s really a flossy assemblage of Bertolucci signifiers,” says Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman. Critics remain sober. J. Hoberman says the incorporation of clips from the Cahiers du Cinema canon “at times suggests an inept Forrest Gump.” Even Andrew Sarris, who confesses to a “nostalgic conflict of interest” (he was in Paris at the same time, absorbing auteurism at the same Paris cinematheque where Bertolucci’s teens meet), calls The Dreamers “soporific” and “incoherent.” (Read David Edelstein’s review for Slate.) (Buy tickets to The Dreamers.)

Barbershop 2: Back in Business (MGM). This sequel includes “riffs on the original theme, plus a semblance of a plot,” says the Wall Street Journal: The barbershop is threatened by gentrification in the form of a fancy new salon across the street. But the action is dominated by “taunts, challenges, and barber-chair philosophy” that “could probably work just fine on stage,” says Entertainment Weekly. Cedric the Entertainer gets extra screen time, and critics looking for controversy seize on a joke in which he calls the D.C. snipers “the Jackie Robinson of crime.” But the Philadelphia Inquirer complains that he “retreats quickly to safer, duller ground,” and the Onion thinks his “shtick suffers from the law of diminishing returns.” Critics split on the overall merits: L.A. Weekly thinks this is an “even richer, smarter, funnier sequel“; the Chicago Tribune says “the razors are a little duller, the clicks not as slick, the patter not as snappy.” (Buy tickets to Barbershop 2.)

Miracle (Buena Vista/Disney). Kurt Russell gets raves for his “taut, nuanced portrait” of coach Herb Brooks in this retelling of the U.S. hockey team’s triumph over the Soviets at the 1980 Olympics. Miracle takes sports movie clichés and “adds patriotism,” says Entertainment Weekly, that seems “lifted from its original era and reformatted for the uplift of a careworn, post-9/11 audience.” Period detail extends from news footage of the Iranian hostage crisis to “exquisitely awful goldenrod appliances” and Russell’s helmet hairdo, which is “almost the key to the performance,” according to Elvis Mitchell—“it’s as stiff, unmovable and unforgiving as Brooks.” The Dallas Observer, inspired by the “unabashed flag-waving,” calls this “one of the best feel-good sports movies ever.” The Onion balks at the “warmed-over propaganda” but still finds it “hard to suppress that lump in the throat” when the players take the ice. (Buy tickets to Miracle.)

Deus Ex: Invisible War(Ion Storm). This “wildly ambitious game” is “a serious attempt to shape the video game into something far grander and more complex,” says the New York Times. “Loaded with more conspiracy theories than a whole season of X-Files,” Deus Ex: Invisible War takes place in a world dominated by two forces: The capitalist World Trade Organization and the spiritualistic Order. Players can help either, but the moral choices are painted “in shades of gray,” according to IGN—”I let one character live and then was shocked to find that he did something incredibly evil later on. Maybe I should kill more people.” The open-ended game “takes you closer to the idea of pure, unrestrained player expression than anything else,” raves Games Radar. There are technical complaints, though: “It’s a game that’s made the effort to name the cat in the secretary’s desk photo but not to make jumping work properly,” gripes Edge Magazine.

Dennis Miller (CNBC). This new talk show is “clearly in the grip of a serious identity crisis,” says the Los Angeles Times. It “could have been a pro-Bush counterpart to Jon Stewart,” according to the Boston Globe, but the joke segments don’t mix with the reverential political interviews. Many critics lament Miller’s turn to the right. AdAge calls him an “Atkins Republicrat“—one of a number of “renegade comedians” who “have transformed themselves into red-meat ranters.” (The National Review, however, says “we on the right should be grateful for Dennis Miller” but cautions that he’s not a true “ideological soulmate.”) Miller’s much-vaunted knowledge of pop-culture trivia comes under fire, too: The New York Post says that “underneath all the facile showing off, the man’s frames of reference are severely dated.”