Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

The Blurbs

June 6, 2005

Blurb Racket 6/5/05

Our weekly roundup of misleading review blurbs—in ads for movies, books, theater—and more, takes on The Longest Yard, Comeback, The Egyptologist, 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

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Warner Bros.)

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "****! Excellent! The most charming and wonderful movie you'll see all year."
Edwards, a Blurb racket favorite, has now sworn off two adjectives for 2005. Luckily, "hilarious," "enchanting," and "mesmerizing" are still available for the year's remaining cinema.

The Longest Yard (Paramount)

Gene Seymour, Newsday: "Rousing and funny."
Actual line:
"It's rousing and funny, but then, so was the original. ... The new 'Yard' is just as slick and rousing as the old 'Yard.' The amplified noise and slapstick adds to the new version's entertainment value, but they take the edge off the original's satiric vision of institutional violence. And even if the very last scene is a lot funnier and, in some ways, more realistic than the 1974 ending, you still wonder where the resonance went. As long as you have a good time while the movie's going on, it may not matter much."

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "A winning comedy! Scores with laugh after laugh. Touchdown!"
More Edwards praise: A mark of a bad movie.

Christy Lemire, Associated Press: " 'The Longest Yard' goes the distance."
Actual line (via Yahoo): "This MTV'd-up and dumbed-down 'Longest Yard' goes the distance."
Not quoted: "This new 'Longest Yard' is less of a movie than it is a two-hour series of beer commercials—sporadically funny and frequently raunchy in a guy-friendly way. ... Two stars out of four."

Lords of Dogtown (Sony)

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "**** Wickedly cool! Heath Ledger is amazing!"
It's a big week for Edwards, who makes a rare appearance here on the ad of a fairly well-reviewed movie.

TV

Comeback (HBO)

New York Times: "Hilarious."
Actual line: "In one of the more hilarious and excruciating moments in the pilot episode of 'The Comeback,' Valerie Cherish learns that she has been downgraded from a leading role as an architect in a new sitcom called 'Room and Bored' (about 'four sexy singles in Manhattan Beach,' a wink at 'Friends' and 'Sex and the City,' Mr. King said), to the marginal and humiliating part of 'Aunt Sassy,' the landlady who lives upstairs like Mrs. Roper on 'Three's Company.' "
That line came not from a review, but from an article about Lisa Kudrow, the star of the show. The Times review, in the same section as this ad, was not so kind, calling Comeback "the saddest comedy on television."

Books

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

The Egyptologist, Arthur Phillips

New York Times: "Comic ... clever ... Phillips demonstrates great zest in mixing fact and fiction, history and satire to concoct a rollicking narrative that's one part Evelyn Waugh, one part H. Rider Haggard, one part World Book Encyclopedia."
Actual line: "For a good long while, the reader is happy enough to keep reading, diverted by the characters' clever chatter and the author's zippy prose. But as Mr. Phillips's much ballyhooed first novel, 'Prague' (2002), demonstrated, cleverness and brio can go only so far. ... In laying out these two plots, Mr. Phillips initially demonstrates great zest in mixing fact and fiction, history and satire to concoct a rollicking narrative that's one part Evelyn Waugh, one part H. Rider Haggard, one part World Book Encyclopedia and several parts hokey movie melodrama. ... Mr. Phillips's own storytelling, sadly, grows increasingly self-indulgent and bloated as the book progresses, and combined with the reader's knowledge of the 'surprise ending,' it makes for a disappointing conclusion to a novel that got off to such a promising and bouncy start."

New York Times Book Review: "...'The Egyptologist' soars so high into clouds of such bright comic invention, that Phillips achieves a hilarity equal to anything in 'Prague' "
Actual line: "... after some awkward novelistic flight prep (like Trilipush apologizing for his ''private or overly candid diary entries''), the Trilipush portion of 'The Egyptologist' soars so high, into clouds of such bright comic invention, that Phillips achieves a hilarity equal to anything in 'Prague.' "
Not quoted: "Whereas 'Prague' seemed like a beautiful, riffing, agitated, worldly novel, 'The Egyptologist' has an occasionally ossified texture, despite its many moments of genuinely high comedy. In this it is not unlike the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. The architecture staggers, but because we cannot really know what those who built them were thinking, they seem sadly remote."

Cleveland Plain Dealer: "[With The Egyptologist]... Phillips has successfully avoided the sophomore jinx and the curse of the mummy."
Actual line: "While the book is too long and the artifice eventually gets to be too heavy, Phillips has successfully avoided the sophomore jinx—and the curse of the mummy."
Not quoted: "The author seems most interested in exploring and demonstrating the concept of storytelling and points of view than in making the book truly memorable."

Salon.com: "...an adventure in unreliable narration, and replete with old-fashioned charms."
Actual line: " 'The Egyptologist' isn't as fresh or as witty, but it may be more accessible to the kind of reader who found the characters in 'Prague' unbearably affected. It's an adventure in unreliable narration, and replete with old-fashioned charms."

Miami Herald: "...The Egyptologist is a brave, deft, high-wire act of storytelling... ...clever, ambitious and artfully constructed..."
Not quoted: "Fans of Phillips' first novel Prague -- which won awards and was designated a New York Times Notable Book -- will find the new book less literary, although similarly luxuriant and fearlessly unparochial. It is a decidedly more commercial read, broader in its appeal, at times overstated in its humor."

Los Angeles Times Book Review: "Arthur Phillips' second novel, 'The Egyptologist,' reads like a love child of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado' and Vladimir Nabokov's 'Pale Fire,' with Oscar Wilde's Bunbury from 'The Importance of Being Earnest' as godparent... ... .it excavates deeper themes of class and immortality while further showcasing Phillips' brainy playfulness and his fascination with pipe dreamers and grand illusions."
Not quoted: "Phillips relies on several running gags to propel his plot, some of which show early signs of decay from overexposure. Astute readers may surmise where he's going early on -- leading to some impatience with the extended ruse."

Kirkus Review: "This is a suave, elegant novel, replete with sinuously composed sentences and delicious wordplay... Phillips's formidable research and witty prose make this one well worth your time. He's quite possibly a major novelist in the making."
Not quoted: "Alas, it's also intermittently labored and redundant. The mysteries of Trilipush's veracity and sexual orientation are endlessly worried, as is his hubristic rivalry with historical Egyptologist Howard Carter (discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamen)."

End of Poverty, Jeffrey D. Sachs

The Economist: "Book and man are brilliant, passionate, optimistic and impatient."
Actual line: "To be sure, the virtues of the book vastly outweigh its failings, just as the virtues of Mr Sachs dwarf his. Book and man are brilliant, passionate, optimistic and impatient. But Mr Sachs is not, as he sometimes appears to think, the developing countries' only hope. And he tends too often to accuse people who disagree with him of bad faith. Many of his economic conclusions are contested. Some people who are less keen than he is to spend more on aid may care just as much about poverty. Not everybody who thinks that corruption is widespread in Africa, and that corruption renders aid ineffective, is racist."

BusinessWeek: "Sensible, often brilliant analysis of poverty's root causes and potential solutions ... leaves you with hope that this crisis is more curable than it seems."
Actual line: "Sachs writes as passionately as he speaks. As a result, much of this book's sensible, often brilliant analysis of poverty's root causes and potential solutions is overshadowed by histrionics that by turns may leave you moved, annoyed, or even insulted. ... Those who doubt that massive injections of money are the answer won't be persuaded by Sachs's proposals. And, yes, too often he makes it sound like the war on global poverty is really all about Jeffrey Sachs. Readers should look past those irritations. At the very least, The End of Poverty should leave you with hope that this crisis is more curable than it seems."

My Life, Bill Clinton

New Yorker: "It's an almost voluptuous pleasure to read Clinton when he's recounting and analyzing a political race or a legislative battle, whether it's one of his own or somebody else's."
Actual line: "It's an almost voluptuous pleasure to read Clinton when he's recounting and analyzing a political race or a legislative battle, whether it's one of his own or somebody else's (and he's as astute on why he got beat for president of the Georgetown student council as on how he turned the Gingrich Republicans' post-1994 triumphalism against them). Passages like these, and there are plenty of them, are enriched by a characteristic mixture of shrewdness, empathy, earthiness, and a nuanced appreciation of context. The problem is that the book is not a sculpture garden. It's a quarry. It's a strip mine. There's gold in that thar hill, but it's veined among layers of rocky sediment, and you have to bring your own pickaxe. A fine four-hundred-page book is buried somewhere under the avalanche that is 'My Life.' "

Seattle Times: "Consistently fascinating."
Actual line: "Clinton's 'My Life' may be uneven, but it's consistently fascinating, with more detail than a Breughel canvas."

Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Might just be the perfect representation of the man himself."
Actual line: "Alternately entertaining and maddening, gregarious and calculated, 'My Life' isn't quite the great book Clinton confesses he has long hoped to write. But it just might be the perfect representation of the man himself."
Not quoted: "The prose sometimes lies flat in relentless accountings of events large and small. ... Clinton conveys the sense of the whirlwind by relating the daily details. But dedication to completing every picture often leads to bizarre turns. ... Better editing might have excised such startling non sequiturs, but perhaps no editor could have kept Clinton from committing the credibility error arising from his curious departure in story structure. While everything else in the book unfolds chronologically, Gennifer Flowers and Lewinsky don't show up until they become political problems for him. This attempt to minimize their importance ends up raising questions about what else he might have omitted for ego's sake."

The Perfect Mile, Neal Bascomb

Boston Herald: "A vivid human-interest story... Engrossing, excruciating, and exhilarating."
Actual line: "The races are engrossing, excruciating and exhilarating, but Bascomb missteps with 'perfect,' a much-overworked word. For Bascomb, the perfect mile wasn't Bannister's barrier-buster or Landy's record-breaker; it was the race they ran later that summer at the Empire Games in Vancouver. The showdown was an era-climaxing event, but imperfect because of Santee's absence. Unfortunately for narrative perfection and for the American runner himself, he was by then a Marine in basic training, able to participate only as a wistful TV commentator."

Chicago Sun-Times: "A fine, gripping book."
Actual line: "This is a fine, gripping book, perhaps the most exciting sports reading of the spring, although it does not quite live up to its accompanying hype."

A Death in Brazil, Peter Robb

Mac Margolis, Newsweek: "[Robb] has a sharp eye for both the beauty and the beast in Brazil."
Not quoted: "Robb shows that he has the teeth but not the stomach for the job. ... 'A Death in Brazil' dredges up some cliches. Colonialism was never a chaste affair—least of all in Brazil, where the Portuguese slave masters left a messy mestizo legacy. But in this fevered narrative, Brazil is a bacchanal—'a riot of polymorphous perversity,' 'a people of bastard voluptuaries'—where the settlers slept with anything that walked, waddled or mewed. For all his erudition, Robb hasn't overcome exoticism, just added more syllables. ... There are few things more piquant than a good conspiracy theory, and 'A Death in Brazil' pulses with them. Brazil wasn't discovered by errant Portuguese navigators, as the history books say, but seized by Lisbon's imperialists bent on pre-empting Spain in the New World. Likewise, the popular Brazilian soap operas, or telenovelas, were invented by the dictators to keep the natives quiet. No matter that these tales are all unproved; they make for good copy. Yet much of this copy is borrowed—Robb often helps himself to the thoughts of others, paraphrasing for pages or vaguely using italics instead of quotation marks for clear attribution."

Natasha, and Other Stories, David Bezmozgis

Meghan O'Rourke, The New York Times Book Review: "An authority one usually finds only in more seasoned writers."
Not quoted: "This is rich material, but it would be more powerful if Bezmozgis' style were more developed. He still fumbles basic exposition, and his subtler effects don't always come off..."

The Portrait, Iain Pears

Associated Press: "Iain Pears has done it again—an elegantly urbane, subtly crafted work that's filled with surprises, shocks and stunning revelations."
Oddly, these words appeared not in an AP review, but in the Providence Journal.

Theater

Lazer Vaudeville

New York Times: "Dazzling!"
Actual line: "The show concludes with a three-way juggling routine that really is dazzling, in any light; one or two other bits of comparable complexity might give 'Lazer Vaudeville' the start-to-finish zip its title leads you to expect. What would really help, though, is if this 'world filled with gravitational possibilities,' as a voice-over describes it, had a little less gravity—not of the Newtonian variety, but of the too-serious variety. Tell a joke or two! Let an oath slip out when a juggling club accidentally hits the floor! Throw some pies! Fluorescent ones, if possible."
Not quoted: "If this isn't an ancient showbiz rule, it ought to be: Things will look a lot more impressive than they really are if they are done in the dark with a heavy dose of fluorescence. That seems to be the guiding principle behind 'Lazer Vaudeville,' a show with lots of color, not much substance and a future asterisk: it is to be the last production in the John Houseman Theater on West 42nd Street, which is scheduled for demolition. ... An anemic routine involving indoor kites is especially irritating, at least to anyone who has seen real kite hobbyists at work on the beach in summer. ... Grown-ups, left alone in the dark with their thoughts once too often, may find themselves forced to admit, 'Doggone it, that's just a guy twirling a rope.' "

Terrorism

Ben Brantley, New York Times: "A shrewd, scary comedy! Sure to evoke shudders of recognition ..."
Actual line: "First produced at the Moscow Arts Theater in 2002, and seen in Sasha Dugdale's artful English translation at the Royal Court Theater in London a year later, ''Terrorism'' is sure to evoke shudders of recognition from New Yorkers living in the long shadow of Sept. 11. But while this production delivers its thematic points clearly enough, it is also still searching for a style of performance that convincingly blends the urgency and ennui, the terror and fatalism of the world portrayed here."
Gelf exposed the out-of-context misquoting in the first part of the blurb in last week's Blurb Racket. Two straight weeks of Brantley misquotes in his own paper; he hasn't replied to Gelf's email about it. Here's another Brantley misquote in the Times:

After the Night and the Music

Ben Brantley, New York Times: "Elaine May is a comic genius. Irresistibly quotable, with tasty fillips of the deadpan hysteria for which Ms. May is celebrated."
Actual line: "Aside from a charming curtain raiser (modestly and accurately titled 'Curtain Raiser'), 'After the Night and the Music' mostly feels terminally torpid in the way that overworked and familiar material often does, even when it comes from comic geniuses. ... The lines in their monologues are sometimes irresistibly quotable. ... Just as often, they are simply weary. ... And though the production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, is dotted with tasty fillips of the deadpan hysteria for which Ms. May is celebrated, you may later find yourself unable to muster the energy to remember just what it was you saw."
Not quoted: "Though they have been given a full-dress production by the Manhattan Theater Club, what are being performed here are irrefutably skits, the theatrical equivalent of unshaded line drawings or portraits by sidewalk artists. Now skits can sometimes sting, delight and surprise while leaving a lingering tattoolike impression. But as you watch Ms. May's new collection of quick takes on urban angst, they mostly seem to dissolve before your eyes, as if they had been written in disappearing ink or configured on a self-erasing Etch A Sketch screen."
For stringing together snippets of three sentences, out of order, to turn an irresistibly quotable pan into a rave, this blurb receives Gelf's inaugural weekly award of Bogus Blurb of the Week.

Trolls

New York Times: "Glorious. A terrific show."
Actual line: "The rest of the show doesn't always live up to that glorious beginning, but this is an intriguing, thoroughly good-natured little musical with tons of potential. ... Imitation Sondheim is better than no Sondheim at all, but some of the music in 'Trolls' is at times too derivative for comfort. And in the tiny Actors' Playhouse, the recorded accompaniment sometimes drowns out the actors' voices, most of which are quite strong. Still, 'Trolls' is on the verge of being a terrific show, with its likable cast, its sympathetic theme and John Hoshko's just-for-the-fun-of-it choreography."

Dance

Seán Curran Company

Los Angeles Times: "There is no fresher, more invigorating new American dance now than the choreography of Seán Curran"
This quote was from a rave—but one dating from October 2002. Gelf wonders if in the past two and a half years some newer American dance has emerged to challenge Curran's title, with a fresher, more invigorating quote in tow.

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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