Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

The Blurbs

August 3, 2005

Hustled

Our weekly roundup of misleading review blurbs—in ads for movies, books, theater, and more—takes on Hustle & Flow, Bad News Bears, Thomas Friedman's books, and more.

Carl Bialik

Blurb Racket
Paul Antonson
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, books, 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

Hustle & Flow (MTV/Paramount)

Wall Street Journal: "A genuine revelation!"
Actual line: It's a perfect combination, one that takes [Terrence Howard's] performance, and the imperfect movie with it, beyond by-the-book redemption to a level of genuine revelation.

Los Angeles Times: "Place Terrence Howard front and center!"
Actual line: "Above all, 'Hustle & Flow' places Howard front and center as a man with little education but much street wisdom."
The ad people's magic turns a descriptive line into a compliment.

Detroit Free Press: "The most uplifting film of the year!"
Actual line: "Though it is certainly the most uplifting film of the year, its characters and language could make some people uncomfortable and out of place."

New York Times: "There is a lot of heart in Hustle & Flow. Mr. Brewer's good fortune in casting Mr. Howard can hardly be overstated."
Actual line: "There is a lot of heart in 'Hustle & Flow,' Craig Brewer's first feature film, and a lot of nonsense as well. ... The complexity—one might less charitably say the incoherence—of DJay's character requires a lot from an actor, and Mr. Brewer's good fortune in casting Mr. Howard can hardly be overstated."
Not quoted: "A pimp might be forgiven for failing to see his own misogyny—pimping is not a profession usually associated with feminism—but the movie can't just slide off the hook along with its hero. Indeed, the outlaw charisma—the lower-depths soulfulness—that Mr. Brewer lovingly bestows on DJay arises precisely from his ability to keep women in their place. ... This disdain for women is not incidental to the film; it is integral to the fantasy Mr. Brewer is selling, which is that pimping is not as hard as it looks."

Blurbs Extra

In the worst blurbs fraud of the decade, Sony employees in 2001 invented David Manning, a fictional critic for a real newspaper—the Ridgefield Press—who could reliably be called upon to rave about duds like Vertical Limit, Hollow Man, and A Knight's Tale. Angry film fans sued, and this week Sony settled the suit for $1.5 million, offering to refund $5 to anyone who saw the movies—which is a nice gesture but small compensation for anyone who suffered through The Patriot. (BBC)

The Island(DreamWorks)

Paul Clinton, CNN Online: "Best film this summer ... a must-see movie!"
Actual line: " 'The Island' isn't the best sci-fi thriller out there this summer—'War of the Worlds' wins by miles—but it's enjoyable."
Absolutely wrong, and there is no mention of "must-see," so far as Gelf can see. For so blatantly misrepresenting the critic's views, this blurb receives Gelf's award of Bogus Blurb of the Week.

Clint O'Connor, Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Pure popcorn, summer entertainment ... the reason air conditioning was invented."
Not quoted: "[Ewan] McGregor and [Scarlett] Johansson are both fine, though they won't be mining 'The Island' for any acting trophies, saddled with expansive dialogue such as 'Run!' and 'Run!' [Michael] Bay could have made a scarier, much more interesting, Rod Serling-esque film addressing thorny moral questions about cloning. But it's easier to smash a Hummer."

Bad News Bears (Paramount)

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: Billy Bob Thornton whacks the laughs out of the park.
Actual line: Even when the movie swings and misses like 'Helen Keller at a pinata party' (the coach's words), Thornton whacks the laughs out of the park without breaking a sweat."

Jami Bernard, New York Daily News: "There's plenty of good news for the 'Bad News Bears' ... a comedy that comes out swinging!"
Actual line: "There's plenty of good news for the 'Bad News Bears,' Richard Linklater's remake of the hit 1976 comedy about an underdog sandlot team that comes out swinging."
Not quoted: "The child actors are uneven. ... Marcia Gay Harden suffers in an embarrassing stock role as a sex-starved single mom. Another downer: The direction of Linklater ('School of Rock') is not always effective, with some scenes petering out as if shot by Buttermaker on a bender."

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros.)

Barbara Vancheri, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "A triumph."
Actual line: " 'Charlie,' however, is a triumph of production design, kicky musical numbers (with actor Deep Roy playing every Oompa, individually filmed and expertly combined), and special effects that make it appear as if a girl is ballooning into a blueberry and squirrels are perched on tiny blue stools in a factory, efficiently shelling nuts. Instead of serving the story, these elements almost become the story, with the golden ticket winners—and the audience—witnessing the marvels and misfortunes in the factory. They threaten to overshadow everything else, including the stars."
Not quoted: "Depp, one of my favorite actors, goes too far afield here. He's like the chocolate that you bet has a caramel or fudge center and you bite into it and discover ... jelly. Eeew, as they say in the movie. If 'Charlie' works, it's in spite of his Peter Pan portrayal, not because of it."

November (Sony)

Gene Seymour, Newsday: "A psychological puzzle box. Director Harrison's got a Kubrickian flair for atmosphere and inference."
Actual line: "Cox inhabits the wan center of this psychological puzzle box ... though Harrison imposes a chilly cloak upon a warm, magnetic cast ..., he's got a Kubrickian flair for atmosphere and inference."
Not quoted: "Director Greg Harrison's second feature invests so much in its own calculatedly diffuse look that it manages to make Courteney Cox drab and gray."

Last Days (Picturehouse)

Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times: "Mesmerizing!"
Not quoted: "A beautiful, if often trying, film from an important American filmmaker 'Last Days' feels like Van Sant's own private Nirvana. Maybe yours too. Or maybe not."

Video

These are from video boxes at my local video store.

Alexander (Warner Bros.)

David Ansen, Newsweek: "The work of a first-rate filmmaker who creates unforgettable images."
Actual line: "Though 'Alexander' is emotionally and intellectually incoherent, it's the work of a first-rate filmmaker who creates unforgettable images."
Not quoted: "[Oliver] Stone's movies, love them or loathe them, have always aroused powerful emotions. But by the end of this histrionic historical slog, you are more likely to feel numb, and not at all sure what compelled him to tell this story. It's a long march with no destination in sight."

Guess Who (Columbia/Sony)

Earl Dittman, Wireless Magazines: "Brilliantly-made date movie and buddy comedy all in one."

Shawn Edwards, FOX-TV: "Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher are flat-out hilarious!"
Dittman and Edwards pack a formidable one-two punch of suspect reviewing. Dittman finds brilliance everywhere he looks, as noted in the inaugural Blurb Racket. Same goes for Edwards.

TV

These blurbs are from TV ads.

Close to Home (CBS)

E! Online: "The best new crime drama of the season."
Actual line: "Arguably the best new crime drama of the season."

Law Firm (NBC)

Los Angeles Times: "Poignant."
Actual line: "In another heart-pounding episode, one set of lawyers discovers its client's case is based on lies, and the drama that ensues is both engaging and poignant in its revelation about the flaws in the justice system."
That blurb comes from a feature about the David E. Kelley reality show. The L.A. Times review was mixed. A sample line: "The show's real-life lawyers do not come across as fully dimensional as Kelley's invented ones. Certainly they are less fun."

Books

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

How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer (Amazon)

Joe Queenan, New York Times Book Review: "An eccentric, fascinating exposé of a world most of us know nothing about."
Actual line: "Foer has overplayed his hand here; the fact that soccer can be 'linked' to so many cultural phenomena does not mean that it 'explains' them. But Foer's book is such an eccentric, fascinating exposé of a world most of us know nothing about that his inability to prove his central thesis seems almost irrelevant."

Longitudes and Attitudes, by Thomas Friedman (Amazon)

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, New York Times Book Review: "A writer with the ability to make you think ..."
Actual line: "Always a writer with the ability to make you think, whether in agreement or otherwise, he is sometimes not just thought-provoking but plain provoking. Even when he has something important to say on weighty subjects, his breezily buttonholing turn of phrase can be a little grating: 'Fat chance ... Dorothy, this ain't Kansas ... Houston, we have a problem here ... So, class, time for a news quiz ... Ah, excuse me, but could we all just calm down here?' Yo, dudes, calming down sounds like a real good idea, especially since we're talking about mass murder and potentially catastrophic wars."
Not quoted: "Part of the trouble is that, like many well-meaning Americans, Friedman doesn't quite see that his country has a very distinctive take on 'the spread of commerce.' The business of America is business, and what American business has always believed in isn't free trade but free investment, a very different thing. In any case, and quite apart from the fact that there seems some time to go before the whole House of Islam is converted to consumerism and the American way, it isn't necessarily true that the expansion of American markets must always bring sweetness and light."

Walter Russell Mead, New York Times: "Eminently worth reading ... It is [Friedman's] ability to see a few big truths steadily and whole that makes him the most important columnist in America today."
Not quoted: "Mr. Friedman's prose style—an occasionally flat Midwestern demotic punctuated by gee-whiz exclamations about just how doggone irresistible globalization is—lacks the steely elegance of a [Walter] Lippmann, the unobtrusive serviceability of a Scotty Reston or the restless fireworks of a Maureen Dowd and is best taken in small doses."

The Lexus and the Olive Tree, by Thomas Friedman (Amazon)

Christopher Farrell, Business Week: "Friedman is a card-carrying global optimist, and he excels when analyzing how a new international system is replacing the old cold-war system. His book contains a stinging rebuke to protectionists, isolationists, and others who want to stop the process of globalization for their own benefit—and to the detriment of most of the populace.... The global economy is still evolving, and Friedman's work in progress is a timely read."
Actual line: "Friedman is a card-carrying global optimist, and he excels when analyzing how a new international system is replacing the old cold-war system. His book contains a stinging rebuke to protectionists, isolationists, and others who want to stop the process of globalization for their own benefit—and to the detriment of most of the populace. But like most other observers, Friedman has difficulty knitting together all of globalization's complex economic, political, cultural, and technological strands. For example, his gloomy chapter on rising income inequality doesn't mesh with his earlier upbeat musings on the link between free-market capitalism and improving living standards. But so what? The global economy is still evolving, and Friedman's work in progress is a timely read."

David Lynch, USA Today: "Friedman writes in straightforward language that should make globalization's complexities comprehensible. There's a great deal of wisdom in this book. Friedman reminds us that the world has grappled with this phenomenon before ... At his best, Friedman represent a direct, and enjoyable, challenge to the white-shoed Council on Foreign Relations types who treat international affairs as inherently the province of 'gentlemen' rather than lay-people ... This really is an owner's manual for a globalized world."
Not quoted: "If simplicity is Friedman's strength, his writing occasionally sinks beneath the weight of the many metaphors he relies on. Such shorthand as The Electronic Herd, The Golden Straitjacket, cybertribes and Microchip Immune Deficiency Syndrome often is clever and apt. Sometimes it is strained and unnecessary. Friedman also is insufficiently critical in his analysis of new technologies, especially the Internet, confusing what is likely five or 10 years from now with what is available for most Americans today."

Scott Whitney, Salon: "This is an important book; not since Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital has a volume come along that so well explains the technical and financial ether we are all swimming through ... There is hardly a page in the book without an underlineable passage ... [Friedman] has used his remarkable vantage point to provide a readable overview that no academic or narrow-beat reporter could have given us ... [A] genuinely important book."
Not quoted: "I would be embarrassed to lend this book to friends overseas. Friedman gets very rah-rah as an American apologist, and he poses no serious objections to the worldview that regards globalization as an international extension of Manifest Destiny. In the gushy tribute to American values he offers on his final pages, you can almost hear the Boston Pops swelling under the patriotic fireworks."

Lee Child's books

Boston Globe: Lee Child's thrillers are "the best written, best plotted, best in just about every way."
Actual line: "Lee Child's Echo Burning (Putnam, $24.95) is the best mystery I have read this year: best written, best plotted, best in just about every way."
The rave was a bit more specific than the New Yorker ad would have you think.

The Enemy, by Lee Child (Amazon)

Orlando Sentinel: The eighth novel in the series will enthrall Reacher's many fans.... The Enemy sizzles with suspense and action. Child sets a breathless pace laced with laconic asides from the opening paragraph to the final line.

Wichita Eagle: The Enemy sizzles with suspense and action. Child sets a breathless pace laced with laconic asides from the opening paragraph to the final line.
This one sound familiar? The Wichita Eagle picked up the Sentinel's review. And voila! On Child's website, one favorable review becomes two.

St. Petersburg Times: "Child knocked this one out of the ballpark. ...a rip-roaring read from the first page to the last."
Actual line: "As a longtime fan of Lee Child's lone-wolf hero, Jack Reacher, I always kick back with a new episode with high expectations. The last two, Without Fail and Persuader, disappointed. The Enemy could have been strike three—except that Childs knocked this one out of the ballpark."

Websites

Blender of Love

New Yorker: "It will make you feel young again."
Actual line: "The Heart-on-Sleeve corner posts love poems and missives from visitors (mainly women), most filled with longing and self-pity. It will make you feel young again."
Not quoted: "An editorial page ('Kirk Rambles Regarding Romance') is somewhat puerile, and much of the correspondence is downright sophomoric. ... Its creator, Kirk Israel, is not ashamed to post his own fiction (thought you may be ashamed to read it)."
Israel also wasn't ashamed of his blurbism, emailing it to Gelf and good-naturedly writing, "I'm always tempted to change 'It will make you feel young again'—The New Yorker to just 'Puerile'—The New Yorker."

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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