At any rate, that review made me an Anthony Lane devotee, so I recently spent an inordinate amount of time wondering whether The New Yorker could persuade him to take one for the team and review Angels & Demons. Yes, it would probably give him an ulcer, but what's an ulcer compared to the delight his review would bring to thousands of New Yorker readers like myself?
Alas, 'twas not to be, and David Denby provides a humorless, perfunctory review of Angels & Demons in this week's issue. (I also got my hopes up for A.O. Scott's New York Times review of the film, which begins with some great zingers, but disappointingly, pulls its punches at the end.)
At least there are still plenty of mediocre movies for Lane to skewer on a biweekly basis. Most recently, his Star Trek review made me laugh with a digression that disparages the recent trend for movies to show the hero's "long-range backstory":
I lost patience with [...] Batman Begins from the moment that mini-Bruce tumbled into a well full of bats. What's wrong with "Batman Is"? In all narratives, there is a beauty to the merely given, as the narrator does us the honor of trusting that we will take it for granted. Conversely, there is something offensive in the implication that we might resent that pact, and, like plaintive children, demand to have everything explained. Shakespeare could have kicked off with a flashback in which the infant Hamlet is seen wailing with indecision as to which of Gertrude’s breasts he should latch onto, but would it really have helped us to grasp the dithering prince?And because paragraphs like these make life better, I've been reading Lane's book Nobody's Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker for the past three weeks. This is like the Platonic ideal of a book to keep on your bedside table and read a little of each night. That's unusual for me to do: I tend to voraciously devour any piece of writing that interests me. But this one is worth savoring. And at 720 densely printed pages, it's lasting me a good long time. The first half of the compilation consists of film reviews; the second half (which I have not yet reached) contains longer profiles and critical essays.
Lane started at The New Yorker in 1993, and this book came out in 2002, meaning that it covers an odd selection of films--not old enough to be classics, but (by and large) not recent enough for me to have seen them when they opened. But I'm not reading the book to get ideas for DVDs to rent; more to stimulate my own writing skills and critical faculties, to delight in some very clever prose, and to fall asleep in a guaranteed good mood.
You get a different perspective on a critic by reading him in a concentrated dose like this, rather than fortnightly--you see more layers. By popular renown, Anthony Lane is the Great Eviscerator, scourge of brainless blockbusters, spinning out witty riffs about disposable movies. But that doesn't take into account the real moral indignation in some of his reviews, the anger at the Tarantino-ish trend of playing violence for laughs. And his reputation as a cultured Englishman writing cultured prose for a cultured magazine hides the fact that he has a thoroughly dirty mind. If you want a reviewer who'll always tell you if a movie has sex scenes and whether they're any good, Lane's your man. (Though perhaps all film critics would do this if they could--if they wrote for cultured magazines like The New Yorker rather than for "family newspapers.")
Lane's pans of movies like Watchmen or Star Trek lead some people to dismiss him as a cranky curmudgeon. But I don't get that from his writing at all: instead, the puns, the sex jokes, the breezy allusions to Shakespeare and other classic authors, remind me of a precocious boarding-school boy. (He was barely in his thirties when he started at The New Yorker.) And despite his erudition and his high standards, I wouldn't call him pretentious, either. If he's a little self-conscious about his love for a lowbrow movie like Speed, he still loves it no less than he does Before Sunrise. Besides, laughter is the world's best antidote to pretentiousness--and there are a whole lot of laughs in this book.