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Books | Film | The Blurbs

May 31, 2005

Blurb Racket 5/31/05

Our weekly roundup of misleading review blurbs—in ads for movies, books, theater—and more, takes on Madagascar, Empire Falls, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and more.

Carl Bialik

The critic blurb is a staple of arts advertising. Yet if you look behind some blurbs, you'll find quotes out of context, quote whores, and other questionable ad practices. Blurb Racket exposes the truth behind critics blurbs in movies, new-release videos, paperbacks, New York theater, and anywhere else blurbing can be found. The ads are pulled from the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Out New York and other sources. Movie titles link to metacritic.com, which compiles movie reviews in a far-more honest way than do movie ads. Other links go to official sites, where available, or Amazon if not. See the inaugural Blurb Racket column for background and useful links.

Film

Second Best (Dream Entertainment)

Stephen Holden, New York Times: "Smart-enough-to-make-you-squirm comedy."
Actual line: "Sloppy but smart-enough-to-make-you-squirm comedy."

David Rooney, Variety: "Witty, strikes an agreeable balance of wry humor and the soulful observation of lives lived in the shadow of everyone else's achievements..."
Actual line: "[Eric] Weber's script is too talky and the guys' kvetch sessions wear thin. But while the film is lazily directed, it strikes an agreeable balance of wry humor and the soulful observation of lives lived in the shadow of everyone else's achievements.
Suppressing the manic energy that fired his character on 'The Sopranos,' [Joe] Pantoliano delivers the occasionally witty dialogue with world-weary disdain and finds dignity in a man largely running on empty."
Not quoted: "But while 'Second Best' is mildly engaging thanks largely to an appealingly self-effacing turn from Joe Pantoliano, writer-director Eric Weber's script could have used an extra polish or two. Lifeless visuals also hold back the HD video feature, but the low-key bite of its humor should play well on cable."

Stephen Garrett, indieWIRE.com: 'Second Best' packs a misanthropic wallop ... Pantoliano's rants fascinate."
Actual line: "... wildly uneven portrait of a failed writer and self-professed loser (Joe Pantoliano) who struggles to come to terms with the success of a longtime best friend. Even while laboring under uninspired direction that's coupled with a script which feels half-polished at best, the dark comedy still packs an occasional misanthropic wallop delivered with the clear-eyed loathing of a man so angry at the world that his rants fascinate."

Unleashed (Focus Features)

Leah Rozen, People: "Mesmerizing!"
Actual line: "The film occasionally veers dangerously close to sentimental, but just when it threatens to get too goopy, Hoskins shows up again, bellowing and bristling, and Li swings into mesmerizing action."
This ad mesmerizes by pasting together snippets from seven different reviews and footnoting (with tiny footnotes) the sources; it's like a movie ransom note. Most readers of the ad would surmise that one reviewer wrote: "****! Unlike any action film you have ever seen! Mesmerizing! Ingenious! Spectacularly intense! Jet Li is action poetry in motion! Bold genius! Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins are excellent!" Last week's Blurb Racket exposed the context of more of these quotes.

Madagascar (DreamWorks)

Gene Shalit, Today: "A wonderfull-of-fun film ... 'Madagascar' is zooperlative."
Gelf checked the transcript, and unfortunately, Shalit really did say that. It's one of seven blurbs for the mostly panned new flick; six of the seven come from the ever-gushing universe of TV and radio.

Cinderella Man (Universal)

Larry King: "One of the best movies ever! Russell Crowe and Renée Zellwegger are magnificent. Ron Howard's direction is picture perfect."
As far as Gelf can tell from the Nexis transcripts, King's rave didn't air until Friday at the earliest. So how did it surface in the Friday paper?

Kingdom of Heaven (20th Century Fox)

William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Gutsy, literate and intelligent, its visuals and cinematic craftsmanship are mouth-dropping. Its vision of the insanity of various religions vying to dominate the real estate of the Holy Land comes through with great power."
Actual line: "It's flawed and often confusing, and its lead, Orlando Bloom, delivers nowhere near the rousing star turn that Russell Crowe pulled off in Scott's last historical epic, 'Gladiator,' which opened Hollywood's summer movie season on this same date five years ago. But its concept is gutsy, its script is literate and intelligent, its visuals and cinematic craftsmanship are mouth-dropping, and its vision of the insanity of various religions vying to dominate the real estate of the Holy Land comes through with great power."
Not quoted: "Bloom is both a strong and weak point of the film. He is a good actor with a likably soulful presence, but he looks physically frail and never seems especially credible slashing around the screen with a broadsword. ... Moreover, the script doesn't even hint at how this rural blacksmith might have learned the skills of knightly combat he displays throughout or, even more perplexing, how he learned the complex battle strategy and tactics that he displays in the climax. The script also makes it hard to follow the line of his moral growth. ... It should be noted Scott also employs something of a double standard throughout, depicting his Christians and their clergy mostly as villainous buffoons but being very careful not to show the Muslim religion and its mullahs in a similarly dim light. No use starting a jihad."

Video

These blurbs are pulled from the cover jackets at my local video store.

Are We There Yet? (Columbia/Sony)

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "A family film that's perfect for everyone."
See this Blurb Racket for a look at Edwards's credibility.

TV/DVD

Empire Falls (HBO)

Entertainment Weekly: "The supporting cast is sterling."
Not quoted: "Wandering, overcrowded ... Empire's side stories all deal with a worthy subject: affections and attachments that aren't always reciprocated, and are often plain nettlesome. Unfortunately, there are so many that none of them get proper care. Even more unfortunate is [Ed] Harris, a fine actor who's miscast ... In the end, Empire Falls is pleasant enough, just a bit watered-down and murky in spots."

People: "A top-notch ensemble ... the performances all ring true."
Actual line: "[Paul] Newman cast himself in a supporting role as a deadbeat dad turned town drunk. Yet even obscured by ugly whiskers and surrounded by a top-notch ensemble ... Cool Hand Paul still steals every scene he's in."
Not quoted: "marred by a violent climax that seems forced and derivative."
Corporate synergy gets a mixed review here: Entertainment Weekly and People are both owned by Time Warner, which also owns HBO. And both seem to give the flick honest, mixed reviews. Yet then HBO's ad folks cherry-pick the best lines for their blurbs. The saddest part: There was no need for a blurb racket, because a half-dozen of the blurbs that do appear on the ad are from genuine raves.

Orlando Sentinel: "Newman gives a funny, energetic performance."
Not quoted: "plays as if it's still on paper ... sprawling, inert ... a major disappointment. ... not a good advertisement for an outstanding novel."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Engaging, amusing and often deeply touching."
Not quoted: "cranky fans of the book are already complaining that the movie doesn't do it justice, while those who haven't read the novel are likely to find the movie, billed by HBO as a 'miniseries event,' pleasant enough but unextraordinary ... less than satisfying ... The meandering pace can be agonizingly slow, and the sprawling subplots get too much attention, or possibly too little. ... Most unfortunately, [Richard] Russo's lyrical words, so beautiful on the page, can come off as hokey when intoned by the nasal narrator."

Sometimes in April (HBO)

People: "Compelling."
Not quoted: "Unfortunately, the film turns as dry as a briefing paper when the focus shifts to Washington, D.C., and the frustrated efforts of State Department official Prudence Bushnell (Debra Winger) to forge an effective response to the slaughter."

Books

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Meghan O'Rourke, Slate: "A rich imaginative world."
Actual line: "It is no small achievement to construct a rich imaginative world out of the debris of 9/11."
Not quoted: "Foer has brought us a chimera of a world stranded awkwardly between fantasy and realism."

Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World: "Foer is an extraordinarily sensitive writer."
Not quoted: "Extremely Loud suffers a bit from its tendency toward the grotesque. ... There are some ornaments here that risk looking like gimmicks."

Last Night, James Salter

Chicago Tribune: "The maestro constantly stirs you as you read ..."
Actual line: "Not all the stories are well-made. Some seem, as a writer friend of mine who is also a great devotee of Salter's work pointed out, truncated rather than compressed. And Salter shifts back and forth among various points of view in a number of stories, which, when lesser writers try it, can make for a faltering mess. But despite these difficulties, the maestro constantly stirs you as you read..."

The Perfectionist, Rudolph Chelminski

New Yorker: "Loiseau seems likely to become a mordant icon of the eternal war between critics and cooks ... Chelminski has a moving story to tell, with universal implications: the downfall of the artist through perfectionism and paranoia."
Not quoted: "He has, to be sure, a strange prose style, which seems to have been translated from the French—though in fact he writes in English..."

Home Comforts, Cheryl Mendelson

Wall Street Journal: "Not only illuminating and practical, but also crisply entertaining."
Actual line: "Not only illuminating and practical but also, most surprising, crisply entertaining."
Not quoted: "Ms. Mendelson is a bit of a Cassandra, seeing danger in everything from aerosol cans and food-processor blades to gas stoves and slippery shower stalls. Sometimes it feels as though the very house you're gently tending is just waiting to kill you. ... Ms. Mendelson neglects some important aspects of keeping a modern home: how to buy and keep silk, fresh and plastic plants and flowers; how to frame and hang pictures; what belongs in basements and attics; how to assemble a household tool kit; how to buy, use and care for barbeque grills; and how to choose and maintain outdoor furniture. ... Very few contemporary American families could attain Ms. Mendelson's lofty standards of housekeeping, and that's the psychological hurdle one must clear to enjoy this book."

Shadow Divers, Robert Kurson

Time: "Irresistible."
Actual line: "Kurson is an excitable writer. He huffs and puffs mightily to add drama and suspense to scenes that don't really need it, and he has the divers deliver direct-to-the-camera rhetorical questions like 'What will it mean if life tests me and I do not try to strike a blow?' But when he found the New Jersey U-boat, Kurson found an irresistible sea yarn that even his overwriting can't sink. Sometimes writers, like divers, stumble on treasure."

Crossing California, Adam Langer

Chicago Tribune: "The most vivid novel about Chicago since Saul Bellow's Herzog and the most ambitious debut set in Chicago since Philip Roth's Letting Go."
Reviewer James Atlas was well aware that the above praise could be blurb-ized. His next words in the review were, "Is this too generous, too blurb-prone, too much the excited response of a reader who recognizes in a book so many details from his own life, portrayed with such exactitude, that the experience of reading it feels at times like daydreaming? The Lunt Avenue Beach: My Grandma Rae's house was next door. Sheridan Road: I lived on it. Full disclosure: Adam Langer went to my high school, grew up in the neighborhood adjacent to mine, indulged (or anyway, his characters did) in the same adolescent excesses and rituals. His postage stamp—as Faulkner called Yoknapatawpha, the geographic territory that circumscribed his novels—is my postage stamp. Anything I have to say about it, any verdict I deliver, is inevitably colored by this fact. Which doesn't mean it's not a terrific book."

Theater

Captain Louie

Talkin' Broadway: "Nothing short of magical! The kind of show ... that will inspire children to a life of theatergoing."
Actual line: " When he uses a diorama to escape into fantasy and visit his friends again, the musical scene Schwartz has concocted, "Big Red Plane" (based on Louie's cherished toy), is nothing short of magical. So are the songs that conclude Louie's adventure—the joyous title song, in which he convinces his old friends to take to the skies with him, and the sad but expectant 'Home Again,' when it's time for them all to say goodbye again. Most of the songs in between are less astutely judged. ... the kind of show that the theatre community needs most today: one that will inspire children to a life of theatregoing. The show's other flaws aside, that makes Captain Louie a flight of fancy well worth taking your family on."

Orson's Shadows

Wall Street Journal: "One of the best new shows of the season."
Actual line: "One of the best new plays I saw this season."
Gelf is always befuddled by cases like this one, when an ad misquotes from a rave review.

King A

New York Times: "Inventive."
Actual line: " 'King A' is an inventive if slightly preachy variation on the legend of King Arthur."
Not quoted: "There is a lot of physical energy in the show, but relatively little real verbal stimulation. When the actors were building things from the 40 tiny chairs that are part of the set or running around waving banners at a recent performance, the young audience seemed fine. But when the show was talky, they appeared restless. When Arthur started talking to Lancelot about 'the greatest challenge of our loyalty,' the little boy in front of me began examining the theater's ceiling. ... When all is said and done, the show could use a couple of dragons."

Blue Man Group

Time Magazine: "A sensation!"
Having seen this blurb for years in Blue Man Group's ad copy, Gelf decided to Nexis the source. Turns out it's a 1992 flowing profile in Time. Isn't it time for a fresh quote?

Terrorism

Ben Brantley, New York Times: "This shrewd, scary comedy suggests that it is impossible to live in the contemporary world without becoming a potential weapon of mass destruction."
Actual line: "This shrewd, scary comedy, which has been given a disappointingly fitful production by the New Group and the Play Company, suggests that it is impossible to live in the contemporary world without becoming a potential weapon of mass destruction."
Not quoted: " 'Terrorism' occasionally erupts into startling moments of raw humor, as attention-grabbing and spontaneous as loud burps at a dinner table. But more often, it is crippled by self-conscious acting that underscores the didacticism and contrivances of the script. ... The overall production design—including David Korins's sets and Marcus Doshi's lighting—never summons the desired mood of pervasive claustrophobia."
Gelf wonders how Brantley feels about the horrific misquote of his review (note that there aren't even ellipses) and in an ad in his own paper, no less! In fact, we've emailed him about it.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Ben Brantley, New York Times: "A lavish wind-up music box of a show!"
Not quoted: "The performers ... sometimes try to create the impression of real and spontaneous feelings, a noble but doomed attempt. ... imagery naggingly recalls the cold, futurist milieus of movies like 'Modern Times' and 'Metropolis,' in which machines rule the universe. As 'Chitty' so cheerfully testifies, that future has arrived."
Poor Brantley, misleadingly quoted again, tries to express ambivalence about the machine-rules ethos of the show and sees his quote used as praise. At least this one appeared not in his own publication, but in Time Out New York.

Classical Music

Los Angeles Philharmonic

New York Times: [Violinist Tracy] Silverman "deftly evokes Appalachian fiddle music, an Indian sitar and wistful jazz riffs with wailing hints of Jimi Hendrix."
Actual line: "The solo part, played with fleet agility and tangy expressivity by Tracy Silverman, deftly evokes Appalachian fiddle music, an Indian sitar and wistful jazz riffs with wailing hints of Jimi Hendrix. But Mr. Silverman's violin was way overamplified. Whenever the violin dropped out, you heard so much more of the rich intricacies in the orchestra, with haunting stretches of music that seems laconic in some laid-back Los Angeles way, yet trembles underneath with fidgety figures, wayward counterpoint and fractured rhythms."

Dance

Noche Flamenca

New York Times: "A soul-stirring tour de force of theater."
This blurb originates from an admitted rave—of one performance nearly five years ago. Time for an update.

Washington Post: "A captivating journey eliciting both the ecstasy and agony of love."
Actual line: "Not to join her in this captivating journey would be to lose a chance at love, both its ecstasy and its agony."
This review is from nearly three years ago.

Comedy

Chicago City Limits

New York Times: "Hilarious! Razor-sharp humor!"
Gelf couldn't find the bit about razor-sharp via Nexis, but the two references to "hilarious" in reference to the improv comedy group are from 1986 and 1988. Surely few troupe members are the same. One article did note, "In recent years, the group's humor has acquired a much sharper political edge." Sharp political humor in 1988, according to the Times, included: ''Puff the dragon lady lives in D. C./ And helps her husband run the land with astrology.''

Spot a misleading media quote in an ad about a movie, show, book, or anything else? E-mail Gelf with your find.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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