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Books | Film | The Blurbs

June 18, 2005

Blurb Racket 6/18/05

Our weekly roundup of misleading review blurbs—in ads for movies, books, theater, and more—takes on Cinderella Man, Entourage, the latest from Nick Hornby and Umberto Eco, 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, 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

Cinderella Man (Universal)

Gene Seymour, Newsday: "Stirring. There probably isn't a filmmaker anywhere, other than the redoubtable Steven Spielberg himself, who's as adroit as Howard at grabbing the mass viscera and squeezing it at just the right intervals."
Not quoted: "It's the very shamelessness of 'Cinderella Man's' unrelenting, fervent exploitation of its audience's emotions that, in a peculiar way, works in the movie's favor. ... you sense Howard and his crew furiously working the controls of his melodrama machine, laying the groundwork for a climax designed to pulverize your resistance as Baer threatens to pulverize Braddock. ... Howard, perhaps the only cinematic showman capable of extracting poetry and high drama from what some would dismiss as 'Nice-guy-dom,' somehow makes it all work. But he'd better be grateful he has such a cast at his disposal ... "
Seen in this context, Seymour's comment about "grabbing the mass viscera" doesn't sound so complimentary.

David Sterritt, the Christian Science Monitor: "Deftly crafted and superbly acted."
Actual line: "... a proudly old-fashioned picture so deftly crafted and superbly acted that you hardly notice how many clichés it contains until you're heading for the exit at the end."
Howard's flick was warmly reviewed, but when ad agencies have to fill a two-page spread with 17 critic blurbs, there are bound to be a couple of questionable ones.

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "It's a masterpiece destined to become a timeless classic. An uplifting and inspiring film for the ages."
The ad buries Edwards at the bottom-right corner of the second page, yet his presence—usually the marker of a bad movie—reflects poor judgment (As explained in this old Blurb Racket). But, as we shall see, it was a big week for Edwards.

Batman Begins (Warner Bros.)

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "****! Phenomenal. Not only the must-see movie of the summer, it's the film of the year!"
It's Shawn Edwards, with a hyperbolic quote at the top of a two-page spread! And it's June 17, the picture of the year! Sad to see Edwards atop 11 genuine raves from more reputable sources.

The Honeymooners (Paramount)

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "Funny ... marvelous ad-libbing."
Not quoted: "Superfluous though it may be, 'The Honeymooners' is not so bad. ... John Schultz's direction can be described as competent, though he often crowds and truncates what should be moments of inspired slapstick. There is 90 minutes worth of plot—far too much—which requires a villain (Eric Stoltz as a greedy real estate developer), and an ending that warms the heart while also demonstrating why movies like this are never as good as the shows on which they are based. Change may be good for the characters, but not necessarily for the audience."

Stephen Schaeffer, Boston Herald: "This 'Honeymooners' cast is comic perfection."
Not quoted: "There is a reason Jackie Gleason is known as The Great One. And there's a reason Cedric the Entertainer—who steps into the hallowed shadow of Gleason in a feature-length 'The Honeymooners'—is not called Cedric the Great. ... There's the coziness to today's sitcoms that has softened its bite."

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Twentieth Century Fox)

David Ansen, Newsweek: "Hilarious! A knockdown, drag-out romantic comedy."
Actual line: " 'Mr. and Mrs. Smith' works far better as a knockdown, drag-out romantic comedy than as an action movie. The obligatory table-turning plot twists in the third act are neither convincing nor particularly interesting. And there were more than a few moments when I hadn't a clue what was going on: what was the warring couple doing at a construction site where Mrs. Smith threatens to blow up an elevator carrying Mr. Smith?"

Shawn Edwards, WDAF-TV (Kansas City): "Mind-blowing! The coolest combination of romance, action and humor."

The Longest Yard (Paramount)

Ebert & Roper, Roger Ebert: "Thumbs up."
Not quoted: "Three weeks ago I saw 'The Longest Yard,' and before I left for the Cannes Film Festival, I did an advance taping of an episode of 'Ebert & Roeper' on which I gave a muted thumbs-up to Richard Roeper's scornful thumbs-down. I kinda liked it, in its goofy way. ... Now three weeks have passed and I have seen 25 films at Cannes, most of them attempts at greatness, and I sit here staring at the computer screen and realizing with dread that the time has come for me to write a review justifying that vertical thumb, which is already on video and will go out to millions of TV viewers seeking guidance in their moviegoing. ... I can hardly bring myself to return to 'The Longest Yard' at all, since it represents such a limited idea of what a movie can be and what movies are for. [etc.]"
The New York Times wrote about Ebert's awkward change of heart last week. The article began, "Here is a quote from Roger Ebert's review of 'The Longest Yard' that you will not see in large type in newspaper ads: 'A limited idea of what a movie can be and what movies are for.' Instead, you will see two words: 'Thumbs Up.' "

The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D (Dimension Films)

Kyle Smith, New York Post: "A splendiferous fantasy more imaginative than the new 'Star Wars. ' "
Actual line: "The new film is a beyond splendiferous fantasy about a boy's psychedelic quest to harness the power of his dreams in a galaxy far, far more imaginative than the one in the new 'Star Wars' film. But like George Lucas, Rodriguez should hire a writer to sort out the stuff that bores him: dialogue, character, structure, all those unattractive black blotches on white paper."

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "A treat for kids of all ages!"

Earl Dittman, Wireless Magazine: "Action-packed!"
Earl loves bad movies, as we explained in the inaugural Blurb Racket.

My Summer of Love (Focus Features)

Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly: "Sensual!"
EW did rave about this flick and call it "sensual"—in a review authored by Owen Gleiberman, not Schwarzbaum.

The Great Water (Picture This! Entertainment)

Robert Koehler, Variety: "Breathtaking! Extraordinary!"
Actual line: "Extraordinary perfs [performances] by a mostly young cast likely will be cancelled out by the grim subject."

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Warner Bros.)

Claudia Puig, USA Today: "Emotionally affecting."
Not quoted: "Some of the love interests are not sufficiently developed to be convincing, coming across more as handsome hunks than real guys. Some dialogue feels forced and unlikely..."

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: "That rare meal both adolescent girls and their mothers will be able to agree on."
Actual line: "As female-bonding comfort food goes, 'Sisterhood' is that rare meal both adolescent girls and their mothers will be able to agree on."
Not quoted: "...cinematically and narratively, it's two steps up from an 'After School Special' ..."

Madagascar (DreamWorks)

Claudia Puig, USA Today: "A roaring good time."
Not quoted: "The thin story, which sometimes feels like a series of one-liners strung together, is wisely kept short."

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: "Untamed fun .. delightfully wacked animated comedy."
Not quoted: "... dishes up some very corny jokes ..."

Video

Hitch (Columbia/Sony)

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "Hitch is the comedy of the year. Laugh-out-loud funny!"

Beyond the Sea (Lions Gate)

New York Post: "Kevin Spacey is dazzling!"
That line apparently came from a winter-movie preview in the Post which said, "Spacey also directs, and performs Darin's songs in a dazzling manner." In the actual, lukewarm, review, the Post's Lou Lumenick wrote that Spacey "resorts to an odd framing device to justify playing a part for which he is patently too old."

Coach Carter (Paramount)

Earl Dittman, Wireless Magazine: "Coach Carter will have you on your feet cheering for more."

Cursed (Dimension)

Wireless Magazine: "****! A breathtaking supernatural thriller!"

Horror.com: "The most terrifying movie of the year!"
Actual line: "It's one of the year's most terrifying thrill rides!"
... as of February 24, when the review was written.

Hostage (Miramax)

Chicago Tribune: "A full-throttle thriller!"
Actual line: "This snazzy, full-throttle cop thriller, made with lots of energy but less sense ..."
Not quoted: "... after that credible start, Siri and the writers throw logic to the winds. ... the payoff collapses. Explosions, gunfights and suspense may keep you awake for a while, but not if the movie assaults logic and holds common sense hostage."

TV

Comeback (HBO)

Denver Post: "Funny...smart."
Actual line: "The tone is smart, and Kudrow brings an enormous reserve of goodwill to the project. And yet the appeal may be narrow. There's little new in the jabs at the sitcom and reality-TV worlds."

Detroit Free Press: "Witty."
Actual line: "... witty, though sometimes overly predictable ..."

Variety: "Clever."
Not quoted: "The appealing elements, however, sag under the weight of other cameo-laden near-reality fare ... While the indignities faced by actresses over 40 are well documented, positioning Kudrow as a poster child for them, even in character, won't cause many to pull out the hankies and violins. ... 'Comeback' delivers few laughs."

Entourage (HBO)

Houston Chronicle: "A comedic gold mine."
Actual line: "... a comedic gold mine compared to The Comeback, which boasts precious few moments that could be called comic gems."
Not quoted: "Ground-breaking TV it isn't, but in these sad times for scripted comedy, Entourage is welcome."

Books

These blurbs come from publishers' websites and ads in the New Yorker.

A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby

New York Times Book Review: "Hornby is a writer who dares to be witty, intelligent and emotionally generous all at once."

This rave is from a 1998 review of Hornby's About a Boy. In fact, Penguin uses the blurb to plug About a Boy's paperback edition. The actual Times review of his latest novel, which appeared after the ad did in the New Yorker, was positive but decidedly more tepid than the blurb above.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Umberto Eco

Baltimore Sun: "Eco is a master storyteller."
On its Mysterious Flame website, Harcourt is responsible enough to date the reviews. Not so in its New Yorker ad, perhaps because the date of the Sun review being blurbed is November 5, 1995 (!). The book in question: The Island of the Day Before. The blurb appears on Penguin's website for The Island. For dredging up a decade-old review and implying it applies to the book being advertised, this blurb receives Gelf's award of Bogus Blurb of the Week.

The Good Priest's Son, Reynolds Price

Washington Times: "The most elegant of contemporary writers."
In the 13 years since that praise appeared in the Times, many contemporary writers have emerged. It's past time for a new blurb.

Velocity, Dean Koontz

Publishers Weekly: "A master storyteller and a daring writer... Dean Koontz is a true original."
The blurb is excerpted from a November 2004 review of a different Koontz book: Life Expectancy. How odd, given that the publisher's website quotes the correct PW review, a veritable rave: "Graphic, fast-paced action, well-developed characters and relentless, nail-biting scenes show Koontz at the top of his game."

The Sky's the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan, Steven Gaines

San Francisco Chronicle: "For those hoping to indulge in a little of this brand of real estate schadenfreude, The Sky's the Limit is the perfect book."
Not quoted: " Much of the book makes for an amusing read. But Gaines could have more impact if he'd made it into more of an expose. ... Certainly any book about celebrity real estate will be a bit frivolous, but underlying a lot of the news flashes are issues that Gaines could have delved into more. ... In not investigating some of these more serious issues, 'The Sky's the Limit' is a missed opportunity."

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, Warren St. John

New York Times: "St. John brings a singular empathy for his subjects. ... These oversized personalities are rendered with irresistible zeal and light up the book like a stadium scoreboard."
Not quoted: "Unfortunately, this empathy doesn't lead to many interesting anthropological conclusions. Mr. St. John ... can't pin down why fans behave like such fools or why college football games prove to be 'the most intense emotional experiences of their lives.' In fact, he doesn't really try to posit an explanation, even though he suggests that is the reason for his book. ... Piles of interesting scraps in 'Rammer Jammer' beg to be developed and might have enhanced our understanding of this significance. ... In the end, one suspects that Mr. St. John is inflicted with acute homerism, the tendency to write kindly about one's own team."

Big Love, Sarah Dunn

New York Times: "Charming ... There's genuine wit at work here."
Actual line: "This book is bubbly, at times too much so. And its plotting owes a debt to half the other chick-lit love stories around. But there's a genuine wit at work here, and a pragmatism that seems especially wry under the circumstances."

The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova

Entertainment Weekly: "The summer's most hotly anticipated novel."
Actual line: "the summer's most hotly anticipated novel without the words Harry Potter in the title..."
Also noteworthy: This blurb is from a fluff feature about Kostova, not from a review. EW appears to not have reviewed the book yet. After all, it's no Harry Potter.

Follies, Ann Beattie

New York Times Book Review: "Some of the stories here will endure long after so much of what we know now is gone."
Actual line: " 'Follies' may be hit or miss, but when Beattie's work is clicking her stories are wonderful to behold. Her best work (and this includes some of the stories here) will endure long after so much of what we know now—the brand names, television shows and quick-shop stores—is gone."
Not quoted: "Too often Beattie's stories remain on the surface, lightly going about their business."

Appaloosa, Robert B. Parker

New York Times Book Review: "Parker pretty much defies category altogether."
The blurb is from a review for Parker's Double Play.

Theater

Hecuba

Guardian (U.K.): "... marvelously combines contemporary resonance and classical style."
Actual line: "Vanessa Redgrave is a great actor. But, in a performance scheduled to open in Stratford but delayed through illness, she gives us only half of Euripides's Hecuba: the grief but not the madness. Which is itself a tragedy, since Tony Harrison's translation and Laurence Boswell's production marvellously combine contemporary resonance and classical style."

Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story

Newsday: "Stylish! Intriguing!"
Actual line: "It was only a matter of time before our cheese-ball culture came up with a musical version. Fortunately, it is more stylish than exploitative. 'Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story' at the York Theatre Company is a two-character, one-piano, 85-minute mood piece—a minor slice of pulp fact-fiction by the intriguing young musical storyteller Stephen Dolginoff."

Star-Ledger: "Dangerously attractive!"
Actual line: "It's interesting to note that as individual vocalists they're merely all right, but when their voices intertwine in a song, the music they make sounds dangerously attractive."
Not quoted: "The new musical that opened yesterday at the Theatre at Saint Peter's in the Citigroup Center doesn't really appeal—for several reasons ... "

Broadway.com: "Stunning! A major accomplishment! To miss Thrill Me would be a crime!"
Actual line: "I must applaud Dolginoff and the York for boldly trying something different and challenging. On that level, Thrill Me is a major accomplishment. You may not leave the theater humming the tunes, but you do feel like you have witnessed the birth of a major talent in Dolginoff. To miss Thrill Me would would be a crime."
Not quoted: "It's a testament to the talents of writer/composer Stephen Dolginoff that his dark chamber musical almost works. I use the word almost, because there is a certain flatness in Thrill Me."

The Paris Letter

Howard Kissel, Daily News: "Stunning! Seeing a new play by Jon Robin Baitz is like having dinner at the Four Seasons after a steady diet of McDonald's. Complex, rich characters. The Paris Letter remains further proof of Baitz's power to create plays with novelistic depth."
Not quoted: "If the play has weaknesses, it is the melodrama that begins and ends the action. Baitz lets Sandy off too easily in the final scene. Although [Ron] Rifkin is skillful at playing the charming Sandy, he is not entirely persuasive in his sometimes too abundant declarations of love for his wife. Was Rifkin deliberately undercutting these declarations?"

Charles Isherwood, New York Times: "John Glover and Ron Rifkin are superb! Michele Pawk is delightful!"
Not quoted: "...a clean production ... that can't disguise the play's tendency toward clutter. ... Small wonder that at times his dialogue has a soap-opera tang. ... Smaller wonder that the play's flashy, time-skipping structure does not allow for dramatic momentum to develop, or even for the play's central characters to maintain a secure hold on our interest and our compassion. ... The plot hinges on an urgent missive sent with a foreign postmark, but despite its broad scope, 'The Paris Letter' lacks the substance of a major epistle from the gifted, always interesting Mr. Baitz. It more resembles a series of disconnected postcards."

Frank Scheck, New York Post: "Director Doug Hughes has elicited sterling performances from the entire cast!"
Actual line: "Director Doug Hughes ... is ultimately unable to fully tame the play's excesses. He has, however, elicited sterling performances from Rifkin (even if the actor is beginning to seem all too familiar in these 'Master of the Universe' roles) and the entire cast, with particularly moving work by Pawk as the two key people in the main character's life."
Not quoted: "At first engrossing, 'The Paris Letter' begins to lose its moorings when the playwright piles on a succession of melodramatic plot elements—from financial ruin to suicide to cancer to an ending that won't be revealed here."

Dance

Raymonda, American Ballet Theatre

New York Times: "A visual feast with bravura dancing!"
Not quoted: "The production's weak point is the tension between storytelling and dance. With less mime than usual, this 'Raymonda' looks like a suite of dances. In a sense, there is too much dancing. And Ms. Holmes's additional choreography is on the bland side. This should make the original Petipa sections stand out all the more but it is only in Act II that the pace picks up."

New York Post: "Not a penny has been pinched on this lavish full-evening stunner of a young princess forced to choose between a noble Knight and his rapacious Saracen rival. The company danced superbly in this opulent staging."
This seemingly seamless quote was strung together, picking and choosing from four of the review's seven paragraphs. Sure, the review was favorable, but that doesn't give ABT the right to rewrite it to make it sound even better.

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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