The Blurbs

August 23, 2005

Irony Is Lost on the Copywriters

Our weekly roundup of misleading review blurbs—in ads for movies, books, theater, and more—takes on The Aristocrats, Dukes of Hazzard, Weeds, 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, 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.


Aristocrats (ThinkFilm)

A.O. Scott, New York Times: "Put down your newspaper and rush off to buy tickets."
Actual line: "'The Aristocrats' is—how shall I put it?—an essay film, a work of painstaking and penetrating scholarship, and, as such, one of the most original and rigorous pieces of criticism in any medium I have encountered in quite some time. For those of you who have not already put down your newspaper and rushed off to buy tickets (and I hereby authorize the advertising department at ThinkFilm to plaster the previous sentence wherever it likes), perhaps I should add that 'The Aristocrats' is also possibly the filthiest, vilest, most extravagantly obscene documentary ever made."
Scott jokingly invited the ad people to use his first sentence, about the essay and the scholarship. Instead they misquoted the glib beginning of the next sentence (in which Scott jokingly says that his academic first sentence would make people rush off to buy tickets) and ran the misquote in an ad in his own newspaper. For that outlandish copywriting—more repulsive than any act of bestiality or scatology described in the film—this blurb receives Gelf's award of Bogus Blurb of the Week. (For more on The Aristocrats, see this Gelf article.)

The Dukes of Hazzard (Warner Bros.)

USA Today: " 'Dukes' is good ol' fun."
Not quoted: "You can't blame the millions who will fantasize about Gen. Sherman burning the movie's negative, but when it comes to the home market, this will be a good one for its target audience to pass out to."

Pretty Persuasion (Samuel Goldwyn Films / Roadside Attractions)

Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times: "A jaw-dropping marvel of inappropriateness."
Actual line: "The first third of the movie is a jaw-dropping marvel of inappropriateness."
Chocano was writing back in January, from Sundance. She might have seen only the first third of the movie then; in her final review, Chocano writes that the would-be satire "is too flip to be serious and too smug to be rousing."

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: "A comedy brimming with zesty shock value!"
The ad people play the same game here; Gleiberman was writing from Sundance. The shock didn't work as well for colleague Lisa Schwarzbaum, who wrote in EW's review, "each character is a lousy joke in this cynical, eager-to-shock Sundance indie ... this charred-black comedy is not even funny."

Must Love Dogs (Warner Bros.)

Connie Ogle, Miami Herald: "The best date movie of the summer."
Actual line: "The film is goofy and improbable and as unsurprising as most TV sitcoms. But it's also spritely, well-acted and a great deal of fun, probably the best date movie of the summer."

The Great Raid (Miramax)

Stephen Hunter, Washington Post: "At last, one of the great stories of World War II. It gives you a wonderful sense of the sacrifices made by that generation."
Not quoted: "... one might have wished for a better movie, and a few smarter decisions regarding the screenplay ... it's a shame 'The Great Raid' couldn't make us feel the experiences of the Ranger grunts a little more precisely."
The Hunter quote used in the ad is nowhere to be found in his review. Nor any other Washington Post article Gelf could find. Hmmm.

Shawn Edwards, Fox: "More compelling than 'Saving Private Ryan'. Intelligent and inspiring!"
Edwards loves everything, as noted in a prior Blurb Racket.

Roger Ailes, chairman & CEO, Fox News: "The best war movie to be produced in years. It's wrapped in courage, patriotism and honor. An excellent and inspirational film. In these troubled times, young and old alike should see this film. It's a reason to go back to movie theaters!"
This is a Blurbs first: A rave by a business executive. Next week, Warren Buffett touts Must Love Dogs.

The Skeleton Key (Universal)

Shawn Edwards, Fox-TV: "The best thriller of the year."

Perfect Crime (Vitagraph)

Variety: "A rollicking ... hilarious black laffer that looks terrific from first frame to last ... high-octane."
Actual line: "A rollicking, unpretentious and often hilarious black laffer that looks terrific from first frame to last, Alex de la Iglesia's 'Perfect Crime' doubles as a cheerily complicit attack on our obsession with image. Though this high-octane tale of a store assistant whose dreams sour features a first-rate central perf, laugh-aloud business and a gratifyingly unhinged plotline, much of pic feels as though Iglesia, long-proven in this kind of fare, is treading water."
Not quoted: "The script takes too long to get everyone into position. With the arrival of Lourdes, the comedy becomes less focused ... the helmer, whose wit, irony and subversiveness could once have made him the Spanish Tarantino, goes for the easy gag here, and some sections look outdated."


These are from video boxes at my local video store.

Because of Winn-Dixie (Twentieth Century Fox)

USA Today: "Sweet, family-friendly, touching and funny."
Actual line: "Sweet, family-friendly retelling of a touching and funny Newbery Award-winning children's book."
Not quoted: "As is often the case with screen adaptations, the book tells the story more movingly and effectively."

A Lot Like Love (Touchstone)

Joel Siegel, Good Morning America: "'A Lot Like Love' is a lot more special than the usual romantic comedy ... You'll like it a lot!"
Actual line: "When we discover his brother is deaf, it's so well-handled that told me 'A Lot Like Love' was a lot more special than the usual romantic comedy and it is. Unfortunately, in more ways than one. 12 and 13 year-old girls are going to want to see this film and I'm not sure they should. Kutcher and Peet meet on a plane. Five minutes into the film, they have sex, they don't even know each others' names. They meet again in New York, they down four shots of bourbon each plus a pitcher of beer. She smokes throughout the film. They're caught by a National Parks ranger in the back of her station wagon. And none of this is crucial to the story. None of this has to be in the film which becomes an awfully sweet romantic comedy about friends who become more than friends. Finally, after six years, there's a wedding. But it isn't theirs. She hit the window, I hit the roof. Here are the questions as a critic I have to ask. Would it be the same movie if she didn't smoke? Yes. The same movie without the boilermakers? Yes. Come on, Hollywood. Worst review I've ever given a movie I've liked. To be fair, the studio isn't marketing this for young girls, but that's Ashton Kutcher's audience. Moms, you know your daughters. Be prepared. [Charles Gibson says off camera: "But if you're over 13 years old or 14 years old ...", prompting,] You'll like it a lot."


This blurb is from an ad in the New York Times.

Weeds (Showtime)

New York Daily News: "Mary-Louise Parker may be the best actress in all of television."
Not quoted: "Watch 'Weeds' not for the humor, necessarily, but for her. Until she gets the topnotch TV starring vehicle she so richly deserves, lurking in the 'Weeds' will have to do."


Oedipus at Palm Springs

Michael Sommers, Star-Ledger: "An absorbing 100-minute piece."
Actual line: "Its very title reveals the bleak resolution for a flawed but absorbing new piece."
Not quoted: "Trying to commemorate past tragedy in the light of the apprehensive present, the Five Lesbian Brothers scarcely achieve their ambitious aims. Yet they remain good company and the lighter portions of their endeavor generate smart laughs."

Frank Scheck, New York Post: "Outrageous humor and genuine emotion."
Actual line: " 'Oedipus' provides a fair amount of outrageous, gay-themed humor, and, more surprisingly, some genuine emotion. But the play ultimately falls victim to its gimmicky concept and contrivances, making one wish that the troupe had concentrated less on comic shock value and more on their characters' emotional dynamics."


Newsday: "Director Ben Rimalower orchestrates it all with agreeable gusto!"
Actual line: "Director Ben Rimalower orchestrates it all with agreeable gusto, although Wilson Chin's spare set design might have done better to leave the San Francisco skyline to our imagination, rather than evoke it with a clumsy cutout."
Not quoted: Fisher "isn't the most economical or original of writers. The play's standard-issue romantic evening involves moonlight, Coit Tower and someone's unconvincing urge to sing. And our narrator Paul, for allegedly being such a smart guy, says a lot of things that are either sappy or just meaningless. 'Joy is a state that transcends happiness,' he tells us. It's about the closest he comes to wisdom."

TheaterMania: "Sharp and intelligent! Amusing and thought-provoking! A terrific new play that is well worth seeing!"
Actual line: "Fisher's writing is sharp and intelligent, his digressions into sexual politics both amusing and thought provoking. Joy remains a terrific new play that is well worth seeing even in this imperfect production."
Not quoted: "Joy has lost some of the magic that made the previous production so special."

Once Around the Sun

New York Times: "A rock musical with a bang ... tremendous!"
Actual line: "A rock musical should start with a bang, and preferably with a band. 'Once Around the Sun,' which opened last night at the Zipper Theater, does both, signaling the presence of a tremendous amount of talent and energy. Unfortunately, the dialogue takes all that talent and energy and smashes them into a brick wall."


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

Allies: The U.S., Britain, and Europe in the Aftermath of the Iraq War, by William Shawcross (Amazon)

Los Angeles Times: "The book is argued with great coherence."
Not quoted: "If you view the invasion as a misguided adventure, as I do, yet admire Shawcross enormously, as I do, the book may make you feel like the little boy in front of Shoeless Joe Jackson. ... flawed by subtle flights of logic."

Independent: "Allies is an articulate, informed presentation of the core relationship between George Bush and Tony Blair that has had such an impact on British politics ... Allies has its real value in its lucid and hugely readable understanding of the Bush/Blair outlook."
Not quoted: "The problem is that Allies is too much of a polemic, even as it unconsciously informs us of the awful dangers in Bush's war."

The Truth About the Drug Companies, by Marcia Angell (Amazon)

Hartford Courant: "Pharmaceutical companies will need a new miracle pain reliever after the whipping they receive from Marcia Angell in her book... .a starting point for serious discussion."
Actual line: "There is no gray in Angell's analysis, but there should be in the public debate. For instance, Angell seems to suggest that dramatically trimming drug companies' profits would limit their ability to buy legislators and regulators, an argument that would lead to the collapse of the U.S. economy if applied to all industries with lobbyists in Washington. Angell's reform list is politically unpalatable, but it serves as a starting point for serious discussion.

The Falls, by Joyce Carol Oates (Amazon)

New York Times Book Review: "Ambitious...Joyce Carol Oates remains implacable, unstoppable."
Not quoted: "As usual, Oates pours out her story in great cascading sheets of prose in which words, sentences, paragraphs, even chapters often seem as insignificant individually as drops of water in the massive falls, their only function to contribute, by sheer volume, to the persistent fine spray of actions, perceptions and metaphors that is this writer's idea of a novel, and to the constant dull roar of Meaning that 'The Falls,' like all her fiction, aims to generate."

Playing With Boys, by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez (Amazon)

New York Daily News: "This is a girlfriend novel, and it's quite satisfying ... Valdes-Rodriguez brings savvy, and sometimes savage humor, to chick-lit."
Actual line: "This is really a girlfriend novel, and it's quite satisfying when Valdes-Rodriguez is coloring in the outlines of three women whose Latina-ness is both individual and part of an American parcel. Where she fails is in the plotting. 'Playing With Boys' deteriorates as it builds to its too climactic ending. Certainly, Valdes-Rodriguez brings savvy, and sometimes savage humor, to chick-lit. It is all the more disappointing, then, when she resorts to a pro-forma finale."

Chicago Sun-Times: "As she did in the well-liked 2003 novel The Dirty Girls' Social Club, author Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez does a fine job here confronting stereotypes with a sharp cheekiness."
Not quoted: "The problem is, Valdes-Rodriguez' characters remain one-note, and they quickly become tiresome. They grow by leaps and bounds emotionally, but these developments are never sketched out for the reader; suddenly, miraculously, the characters are happier and best friends. Even though we're given a glimpse into each of their lives with every viewpoint, something is missing. ... And then there's a matter of synergy. Each character, including Goyo, is so radically different from the next, the leap to their tight relationships is a little dubious without extended explanation. In plot, pacing and character development, this novel is a deliciously described proposal with a 'happily ever after' tacked on the end."

On her website, Valdes-Rodriguez does reverse blurbism, decrying much media coverage of herself. "Alisa's challenge to reporters and editors: When writing about Alisa and other Latinos, refrain from using any of the following imperialist cliches: Hot, spicy, passionate, sassy, salsa, chili pepper, hot tamale, cha-cha, tango. Thanks!" She then, in a more serious vein, refutes certain oft-repeated claims about her work, concluding, "Please refrain from reprinting untruths in the name of sensationalism and thanks for doing your own research rather than regurgitating the work and words of your colleagues at other publications. Thanks!"

Campaign Ads

Gifford Miller TV ad [as quoted in the New York Times]: "The New York Times has called Gifford Miller the most experienced Democrat for mayor ... who's put some good policy on the books."
Not quoted: He has stumbled, most visibly over a sexual harassment charge last year by a Council employee against Councilman Allan Jennings Jr., which the Council was far too slow to investigate. (Another harassment charge against a councilman this year was swiftly given to investigators.) Mr. Miller also pushed for immediate revision of the campaign finance law, legislation that personally benefited him.
It's rather bizarre that the Times, in a piece evaluating the Miller ad for its veracity, doesn't check a quote from its own pages. To Miller's credit—though perhaps not to his lawyers' delight—on his website he does post the entire text of the Times editorial, including the negative stuff.

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

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Article by Carl Bialik

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