April 26, 2006

BOOKS: The Dead Beat, Marilyn Johnson (2006)

When Johnson opens her newspaper, she turns first to the obituaries. Not just to find out who's died, but to read some of the best writing in the paper. We are, Johnson claims, in a golden age of obituary writing.

The field has changed, especially in the last quarter-century, in both style and subject. No longer must an obituary be simply a dull list of dates and significant events; the Independent of London goes so far as to remove all that mundane info (they call it the "desperate chronology") into a small sidebar, leaving the obituary itself for the more interesting stuff -- the anecdotes, the telling details, the fascinating trivia that tells us more about who this person really was.

And full-length obituaries are no longer reserved for the powerful and the famous. Increasingly, newspapers are devoting space to obituaries of ordinary people who may not have been players on the world stage, but had a large impact on the people who knew them.

That movement towards what Johnson calls "egalitarian obituaries" was already afoot when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened, and it had a strong influence on the New York Times "Portraits of Grief" series -- not full-fledged obituaries, but brief portraits of the dead and missing, written in a relatively casual style -- which in turn helped to spread the egalitarian movement even farther.

There is now a community of obituary fans, and there are obituary writers who are celebrities within that community: Hugh Massingberd of the London Telegraph, Jim Nicholson of the Philadelphia Daily News (who Johnson profiles at length), the late great Robert McG. Thomas of the New York Times, who was so highly regarded that an anthology of his best work was published. (It's called 52 McG's, and it is most entertaining reading, indeed.)

A book about obituaries and their writers might sound like gloomy reading, but Johnson finds the warmth and charm in the topic, and captures what it is that these writers do well. As for the appeal of the obituary form, Johnson sums it up nicely at the end of her book:

...what's most valuable about the obit, any good obit, is how it tries to nail down quickly what it is we're losing when a particular person dies, the foster father of two hundred children, or the "revolutionary whore" who wrote books and founded an international library of prostitution, or the woman who "loved to sew pillows and knit newborn baby caps" -- all of them, any of them. The better the obit, the closer it approaches re-creation. It's an act of reverence, a contemplation of this life that sparked and died, but also an act of defiance, a fist waved at God or the stars. And what else, really, do we have besides the story?

April 25, 2006

TV: American Idol (classic love songs)

It's "Classic Love Songs" week, and tonight we learn that the contestants have a pretty sorry idea of what makes a classic. That leads to the dullest night of the season, and a huge letdown after the generally high caliber of last week's performances.

The rundown:

Katharine, "I Have Nothing" -- My own theme for the evening will prove to be "Are the judges and I watching the same performance?". They certainly didn't think much of Katharine tonight, but I liked it. It's the first time she's sounded like a pop star, someone I could actually imagine hearing on the radio. The wavy hair, though? Big mistake.

Elliott, "A Song for You" -- Whatever it is that makes Elliott love this song so much, he doesn't convey any of it to me, and the song just sits there like so much gruel. The performance is OK, I suppose, though his vibrato is even more out of control than usual.

Kellie, "Unchained Melody" -- The first half is pretty in a bland sort of way, but after she stands up, her pitch goes all to hell. And David Foster's advice to go for the high note at the end is a big mistake; because she can't sustain the note, it winds up sounding like bad yodeling.

Paris, "The Way We Were" -- No, no, no. This is not a song that any 17-year-old girl, no matter how freakishly talented she may be, should be singing. This is a song about long experience and regret and lessons learned, and you can't sing it with any understanding at 17. Still, that voice is amazing, and in 25 years, when her emotional maturity catches up to her vocal maturity, she'll have people in tears with a song like this.

Taylor, "Just Once" -- Lackluster, uninspired, dull. A few pitch problems at the beginning; the second half picks up a bit of passion, but the song never really gains the energy it needs.

Chris, "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman" -- It's a wretched song, but Chris makes about all of it that can be made. The bridge is a bit harsh, as that rocker/screamer edge creeps back into his voice, but on a night when no one is doing great work, this seems pretty good.

For the night: Katharine, Chris, Paris, Elliott, Taylor, Kellie.

For the season: Paris, Katharine, Chris, Taylor, Elliott, Kellie.

Deserving the ticket home: Kellie, in a landslide.

MOVIES: Friends With Money (Nicole Holofcener, 2006)

As is usually the case with Holofcener's movies, the writing is sharp and funny, and the acting impeccable. (Of course, let's face it, even I could get good performances out of a cast that includes Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack, and Jennifer Aniston.) But as is also usually the case, Holofcener's characters are so miserably unhappy that spending 90 minutes with them is a relentlessly unpleasant experience.

Our unhappy women this time around are Jane (McDormand), a successful designer of wildly overpriced women's clothing; Christine (Keener), a screenwriter whose professional and personal partnership with her husband is on the rocks; Franny (Cusack), who is so fabulously wealthy that her biggest problem is deciding which charity will get that extra $2 million she has lying about; and Olivia (Aniston), the only one in the group who is still single, and the only one who isn't rich (she's currently working as a maid).

The movie's biggest problem is that there's a key piece of back story missing: How did Olivia become part of this group of friends? She's a good 7-10 years younger than the other women, so it seems unlikely that they met in childhood or in college; she certainly can't afford to attend many of the charity events and banquets that they go to. Her inclusion in the group never makes any sense, and it's distracting.

As for the other women, well, mid-life crisis isn't any more interesting in women than it is in men, and while I can admire the skill with which McDormand immerses herself in Jane's depression and rage, or the perfection of Cusack's comic timing, I can't honestly say that I enjoyed the movie, or that it's worth recommending to anyone else.

April 19, 2006

BOOKS: Rhapsody in Blood, John Morgan Wilson (2006)

Seventh in Wilson's mystery series featuring former journalist Benjamin Justice.

This one takes Benjamin not only out of West Hollywood, but out of Los Angeles entirely to the faded resort village of Haunted Springs. Fifty years ago, when it was still called Eternal Springs, it was a popular destination spot for celebrities, and the focus of the nation's attention when the young actress Rebecca Fox was brutally murdered. A black handyman was charged with the crime; when a mob burst into the town jail, he became the victim of the last lynching in California.

Now a film crew has come to Haunted Springs to make a movie based on those events, and Benjamin's friend Alexandra is writing a piece on the movie for the Los Angeles Times. She invites Benjamin to join her, taking the opportunity to get away for a vacation.

But this is a mystery series, and wherever Benjamin goes, death must surely follow. The victim is gossip writer Toni Pebbles, who shows up unexpectedly amid rumors that she has a gigantic bombshell to drop about one of the assembled cast and crew. Everyone's got a secret, it seems, and it falls to Benjamin to figure out whose was worth killing for.

Wilson's series continues to be a solid one, and it's still a novelty to have a series featuring a gay man who's no longer young and pretty (Benjamin is in his late 40's). The assembled cast of suspects is a lively one, each sharply drawn in the limited space allotted; the mystery plays out fairly, and a sharp reader will have a good chance to spot the culprit.

One caveat: Those who are sensitive to children-in-jeopardy plotlines may find some passages too intense.

April 18, 2006

TV: American Idol (the American Songbook)

Tonight's lesson? When the songs are this good, any singer -- well, almost any singer -- with a minimum of talent can be impressive.

The rundown:

Chris, "What a Wonderful World" -- we knew from country night that Chris could sing, but I hadn't realized just how pretty his voice was. That rock-singer harshness creeps in on one or two of the loudest notes, and it doesn't belong in this performance, but I like the relaxed quality, and the rhythmic freedom Chris brings to it.

Paris, "These Foolish Things" -- that preternatural maturity really works for her tonight, and she is in absolute control of her voice. It's a dazzling performance, and if she keeps singing like she has the last two weeks, she's gonna win this thing.

Taylor, "You Send Me" -- most out-of-theme song choice of the night. Remember when Bo sang "Satisfaction" last season? What they have in common is that "Satisfaction" and "You Send Me" really aren't terribly interesting as songs; we remember them because Jagger and Cooke gave two of the great star performances in rock history. This song needs a Sam Cooke to make it work, and Taylor ain't no Sam Cooke. Even by Taylor's own standards, it's a flat, uninspired performance.

Elliott, "It Had to Be You" -- Look at how relaxed Elliott is at the beginning, and you can hear it in his voice, where there's a warmth and a charm I've never heard before. I'd still like him to tone down the vibrato a bit, but this is by far his best performance.

Kellie, "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" -- For a few measures, I thought Kellie might surprise us again as she did last week. But then she went wildly off-pitch ("...am IIII..."), and then she got an entire beat ahead of the band without seeming to notice or care all that much. A trainwreck.

Ace, "That's All" -- Without that long hair to hide the roundness of his cheeks, Ace actually has a pudgy little face, and isn't very pretty after all. Unfortunately for him, pretty really is his strongest card at this point in the competition, because when we actually pay attention to his singing, we're struck by how thin, whiny, and nasal it is. And even beyond the quality of the voice, it's a bland performance.

Katharine, "Someone to Watch Over Me" -- I've been singing Katharine's praises all season. I thought she was the star of Stevie Wonder night, right up there with Mandisa on 50s night -- one of the front-runners. So how is it that on the night the judges sing her praises to high heaven -- Simon saying that she makes everyone else seem like "talented amateurs" -- I'm left utterly cold? I thought it was a chilly, off-putting performance, and all the doe-eyed gazes into the camera felt entirely phony to me.

For the night: Paris, Elliott, Chris, Taylor, Katharine, Ace, Kellie.

For the season: Paris, Chris, Katharine, Taylor, Elliott, Kellie, Ace.

Deserving to go home: We really do need to get rid of Ace, but sloppiness like Kellie's must be punished. Pickle the Pickler.

April 12, 2006

BOOKS: Holmes on the Range, Steve Hockensmith (2006)

Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer -- known as "Old Red" and "Big Red," respectively -- are cowboys, and they've just signed on to work at the Bar VR ranch in Montana. The place has an unsavory reputation, and their employers are secretive as can be, but it's still a shock for the brothers when they come across a body. Well, what's left of a body, to be precise, as the corpse has been trampled to bits, the apparent victim of a cattle stampede.

Old Red (who's not really all that old at 26) is a fan of Sherlock Holmes. It's 1893, and the stories of Holmes's adventures have just begun to appear in American magazines, and Gustav insists that his brother read him each new tale as they appear (Gustav himself is "not on speaking terms with the alphabet"). He's fascinated by Holmes's deductive skills, and when another body turns up on the Bar VR, Gustav decides that he's just as capable of solving a murder as Holmes is.

Hockensmith has given us a clever Sherlockian mystery here, with an array of interesting suspects, some sharp-eyed deducing from Gustav and Otto, and lively first-person narration from Big Red, playing Watson to his older brother's Holmes. The language has enough dialect and period jargon to feel authentic, but doesn't lay it on so thick that it's hard to wade through; here's the opening paragraph:

There are two things you can't escape out here in the West: dust and death. They sort of swirl together in the wind, and a fellow never knows when a fresh gust is going to blow one or the other right in his face. So while I'm yet a young man, I've already laid eyes on every manner of demise you could put a name to. I've seen folks drowned, shot, stabbed, starved, frozen, poisoned, hung, crushed, gored by steers, dragged by horses, bitten by snakes, and carried off by an assortment of illnesses with which I could fill the rest of this book and another besides.

Holmes on the Range is a charmer; there's ample room for sequels, and I hope that Hockensmith gives us more adventures of the Amlingmeyer brothers.

April 11, 2006

TV: American Idol (songs of Queen)

An odd assortment of performances tonight, in which some singers seem to be taking their own reviews too seriously, and the most interesting performances come from unexpected places.

The rundown:

Bucky, "Fat Bottomed Girls" -- Well, he's got physical energy to spare; it's a shame that not much of it gets to his voice. There are lots of pitch problems, and he's screaming his way through parts of the song. It's too bad, because the song suits his voice, and this could have been a high point for him.

Ace, "We Will Rock You" -- A disastrous song choice, as Ace has none of the rough edges this song needs. It's the most polite version of Queen imaginable, and among the worst performances of the season.

Kellie, "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- OK, yeah, I thought this would be an utter disaster, the sort of thing we'd all be telling our children about someday. And there are a few pitch problems, but Kellie is surprisingly effective as a rocker chick. I think it's the best thing she's done yet, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Chris, "Innuendo" -- Simon nails this one: On what should have been Chris's night to shine, he's blown it with an "indulgent" choice of a boring song. And we're back to Shouting Rocker Chris, which is disappointing after last week, when he showed that he's capable of more than that.

Katharine, "Who Wants to Live Forever" -- A difficult, wide-ranging melody, and Katharine sings it well, but there's something missing that keeps it from quite taking off. Maybe she isn't quite comfortable with the song, after making a last-minute change, but there's not a lot of personality coming through.

Elliott, "Somebody to Love" -- "I work hard..." are the first words we hear, and in that instant, it finally clicks for me what I don't like about Elliott. He does work hard; singing should never be as much work as this. He's pushing the first half of this song as hard as he possibly can, and we can still barely hear him over the band. The ending, I must admit, is very nicely done.

Taylor, "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" -- At first, Taylor's hyper attitude and spastic dance moves were fun; they seemed like spontaneous expressions of who Taylor was. But now, it feels like he's been reading his reviews and is just giving us what we want. It's become a self-conscious piece of shtick, and though the song is sung well enough, the act is tiresome.

Paris, "The Show Must Go On" -- Absolutely fabulous. Paris even gets away with those silly "I'm a rock star, dammit" gestures, and shows a side of her personality that I not only hadn't seen, I hadn't even suspected it was there.

For the night: Paris, Kellie (!), Katharine, Taylor, Chris, Elliott, Bucky, Ace.

For the season: Katharine, Paris, Chris, Taylor, Kellie, Elliott, Ace, Bucky.

Deserving to go home: Gotta be either Ace or Bucky; they're consistently a notch below everyone else.

April 09, 2006

BOOKS: Four Colors Suffice, Robin Wilson (2002)

Wilson gives us a history of the four-color problem and its solution. At the opening, he states the problem very simply: Can every map be colored with at most four colors in such a way that neighboring countries are colored differently?

In itself, it's not a really important question -- it's not as if mapmakers are required to limit themselves to the fewest possible colors -- but it did lead to new ideas that had important implications in other areas of mathematics. The field known as graph theory, in fact, developed almost entirely out of ideas generated in the search for a solution to the four-color problem.

The problem appears to have first been posed by Augustus De Morgan, a British mathematics professor, in 1852, and it would not be solved until 1977, when the team of Kenneth Appel, Wolfgang Haken, and John Koch would publish their proof.

That proof itself turned out to be controversial in its own right. It was, in essence, a more complicated version of the following 3-line mini-proof:

1. Every map has either feature A or feature B (a map may have both, but every map has at least one.)
2. Four colors suffice to color any map with feature A.
3. Four colors suffice to color any map with feature B.

Obviously, if you can prove all three of those statements, you've solved the problem, and this was the approach taken by Appel, Haken, and Koch. The big difference is that instead of "feature A or feature B," their unavoidable set of configurations contained almost 1500 different features, and a "four colors suffice" proof was required for each one.

To generate that many proofs took nearly 1200 hours of computer time, and the resulting overall proof was a four-foot stack of computer paper; it was impossible for any mathematician to thoroughly check all of those subproofs. This raised the question of whether a computer-generated proof could even be called a proof, and even if it could, some were unsatisfied by it on aesthetic grounds. Daniel Cohen, another mathematician who had worked on the problem, argued that "the real thrill of mathematics is to show that as a feat of pure reasoning in can be understood why four colors suffice. Admitting the computer shenanigans of Appel and Haken to the ranks of mathematics would only leave us intellectually unfulfilled."

A somewhat simpler proof would eventually be produced by another team of mathematicians, with an unavoidable set of only 633 configurations to be proven as opposed to the original proof's 1,482, but the approach was the same, and the new proof was still computer generated.

There were a lot of false steps and failed attempts in the 125 years between the initial statement of the problem and its solution, and Wilson's history is an entertaining one. It is not for the mathematical novice, as the theory does occasionally get a bit dense. I found that I could almost always skim through the worst of it, though, and at the end of the section, I would at least understand what had just been proven and why it was important, even if I didn't quite follow all the details of how it had been proven.

BOOKS: The Necessary Beggar, Susan Palwick (2005)

This is a superb fantasy novel, working as a touching romance, a dark satire about immigration, and a fable about the redemptive power of faith.

Darroti has confessed to the murder of a young noblewoman, and is to be exiled to another world. In accordance with tradition, his immediate family -- father, two brothers, their wives and children -- will go with him.

They pass through the gate, knowing they will never return, and the world they've entered turns out to be a near-future version of our own. Paranoid xenophobia has taken over in America, and Darroti's family -- wearing unfamiliar clothing, carrying strange food and plants, speaking a language no one has ever heard, and certainly not in possession of the proper documents -- find themselves herded into an internment camp for illegal immigrants.

The family is aided by Lisa, a local woman whose strong religious belief leads her to help the family leave the camp and adapt to live in this strange new home. We focus in particular on Timbor, Darroti's father, who survives by clinging to his own religious tradition, and on Zamatryna, Darroti's young niece, who acclimates and becomes an overachieving teenager.

Palwick creates remarkably full-bodied characters here. I was particularly impressed by Lisa and her husband Stan; their desire to do good and their tendency to be led into narrowmindedness by their beliefs are balanced fairly. They are neither cartoon zealots nor perfect saints.

The ending of the book is perhaps a bit rushed; a lot happens in the last two chapters. But the final scenes are beautifully written, lyrical and moving, as the religious traditions of all the characters are reconciled in interesting fashion, and the exiled family is finally able to make peace with their numerous losses.

This is a marvelous book, and I recommend it with great joy.

April 08, 2006

MOVIES: Ice Age: The Meltdown (Carlos Saldanha, 2006)

This movie has pretty much the same strengths and flaws as the first Ice Age movie, and just as with the first one, the strengths just barely outweigh the flaws.

The biggest flaw is Ray Romano. He's not a particularly interesting actor to begin with, and his flat, inexpressive voice is the least interesting thing about him; choosing him as an animation actor is a bad idea. He's a bit better here than in the first movie, largely because most of his scenes are played opposite Queen Latifah (a new addition to the cast), who is a superb choice for voice-over work, and who manages to put a little life into Romano.

On the plus side is Scrat, the squirrel desperately trying to hang onto what is apparently the world's last acorn. His episodes, which interrupt the movie's main story periodically, are the best thing in the movie, marvels of slapstick and comic timing. There comes a moment when his life's efforts are rewarded with an unobstructed path to the biggest acorn he's ever imagined, and Scrat's dancing approach to that nut is a stellar bit of character animation, expressing all of his joy, awe, and disbelief in a few seconds.

The kids'll enjoy it, and you won't be too badly bored by it.

MOVIES: Brick (Rian Johnson, 2006)

Brendan gets a mysterious phone call from Emily, a former girlfriend; she's in trouble, and begs him to help. With the help of his friend, a smart guy known as The Brain, Brendan investigates and finds himself caught up in a convoluted tale of drugs and murder, all of it centered on a small-time local drug lord called The Pin. There's a pair of dark-haired femme fatales (one of them a serious drama queen) who may or may not have Brendan's best interests at heart; some of The Pin's hired thugs may be out to take his place; and the authorities are utterly clueless.

Sounds like a 30s private eye flick, doesn't it? Something with Humphrey Bogart, maybe. But Brick is set in the present day, and the characters are southern California high school students. (Well, The Pin is a bit older; The Brain says, "He's real old -- 26, maybe.") They all speak in a stylized patois that combines teen slang, hard-boiled detective jargon, and a few bits of invented language; the dialogue has the rapid rat-a-tat of film noir, and some of it flies by too fast to follow (though the gist is usually clear).

The cast gets the style right, and they keep the dialogue from feeling too artificial. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lukas Haas are fine as Brendan and The Pin, and their scenes together, with neither sure how far to trust the other, have a crisp tension. None of the movie's actors are young enough to be playing high school students, which is par for the course these days, but when the movie's as stylized as this, it matters less. And apart from The Pin, there are only two adult characters in the movie -- the school's vice-principal (a sharp cameo from Richard Roundtree), and The Pin's mom, who chatters on about apple juice to her son's visitors -- so the fact that the principals are older than they should be isn't as distracting.

Nathan Johnson's score is effective, with a lot of oddball instruments chosen to add to the sense that this isn't quite the world we know -- bluesy riffs played on the harpsichord, melodies clattered out on cowbells.

I don't think that Brick is much deeper than its central gimmick, and like a lot of private-eye stories, it's impossible to make coherent sense of it (when The Big Sleep was adapted for the screen, even Raymond Chandler was famously unable to explain exactly who had committed one particular murder, and he wrote the damn book). But that gimmick is played out with great flair, and even if the story falls apart in retrospect, it's entertaining while it's happening.

April 04, 2006

TV: American Idol (country music)

What did we learn from tonight's show, boys and girls? Well, we learned that as a vocal coach, Kenny Rogers is no Barry Manilow; we learned that country music isn't as easy as people think; and we learned that almost none of these contestants realize that there were songs being written more than five years ago. Some of the front-runners had very bad nights, and some who had been at the back of the pack moved up.

The rundown:

Taylor, "Take Me Home, Country Roads" -- No one looked less happy to be here tonight than Taylor. It was a dull performance; he was just singing notes, with no personality or charisma shining through at all.

Mandisa, "Any Man of Mine" -- As always, the voice is fabulous. The performance, on the other hand, was lazy and perfunctory, as if the music were beneath her somehow.

Elliott, "If Tomorrow Never Comes" -- I just don't much like Elliott's voice, and am trying to get past that in order to evaluate his performances fairly. This was certainly the best we've heard thus far tonight, but I thought it lacked any emotional connection to the lyrics.

Paris, "How Do I Live" -- Smart song choice. The low register in the verses wasn't strong, but the chorus was big and belt-y, which is where Paris always sounds best.

Ace, "I Wanna Cry" -- Yes, there were one or two very sour notes, but this was Ace's best performance yet; the opening verse was especially lovely.

Kellie, "Fancy" -- As with all of the women, her low notes are her weak spot, and she still doesn't seem to have any idea what the song she's singing is about -- Fancy is a high-class whore, dear -- but she sounds better than she has all season.

Chris, "Making Memories of Us" -- Finally, a change of pace for Chris, who makes a stronger emotional connection to his song than any of the other singers, and that connection makes this the sexiest performance of the night.

Katharine, "The Elvis in Me" -- Another smart song choice, letting her show off her powerful chops. It's a pleasant, sultry, playful performance.

Bucky, "Best I Ever Had" -- If anyone needed to have a good night on country night, it was Bucky, but this was a lazy whine of a performance, and even by Bucky's low standards, the enunciation was dreadful (and that after being specifically warned by Rogers that he needed to over-enunciate).

For the night: Chris, Ace, Kellie, Katharine, Paris, Elliott, Mandisa, Taylor, Bucky.

For the season: Chris, Katharine, Mandisa, Paris, Taylor, Kellie, Elliott, Ace, Bucky.

Deserving the ticket home: Bucky, by a wide margin.

April 03, 2006

MOVIES: Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006)

Reasonably intelligent bank-robbery flick with a cast good enough to make you ignore most of the plot holes and implausible twists.

Clive Owen heads the team of robbers, who take 30 or so hostages at a Manhattan bank and demand a plane to fly them away. Denzel Washington is the chief hostage negotiator on the scene; he realizes very quickly that Owen is up to more than just a bank robbery, but can't quite figure out what's really going on.

Christopher Plummer is the head of the bank's board, and his own personal safe deposit box is in this branch. Needing to protect whatever is in that box, he calls in the mysterious power broker Jodie Foster, who pulls a few strings with the mayor and gets permission to go into the bank and talk to Owen.

The performances are top-notch; Owen has a silky confidence that clashes nicely with Washington's rough-edged professionalism. Foster's role isn't large, but after her recent run of mom-in-peril movies, it's nice to see her playing someone a bit more commanding. Key supporting roles are well handled by Willem Dafoe (who normally annoys me immensely) and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

The biggest flaws in the movie's story involve Plummer's character; it's impossible to believe that he would have kept the mysterious contents of that safe deposit box instead of destroying them, and Plummer is ten or twenty years too young to have acquired those items in the way the plot requires.

But none of that is likely to bother you until after the movie's over; while it's happening, Lee keeps things moving briskly enough that you don't take time to worry about plot details.

MOVIES: She's the Man (Andy Fickman, 2006)

This adaptation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night moves the story to a high-school setting, which works surprisingly well.

You remember the basic story: Viola has been shipwrecked in Illyria, and disguises herself as her twin brother Sebastian (who has apparently been killed in the wreck) since it is not safe for a single woman to travel alone. She winds up in the court of Duke Orsino, and finds herself falling for him; Orsino has eyes only for Olivia, who is mourning her brother and will accept no suitors. Nevertheless, Orsino sends "Sebastian" to her court to make his case, and Olivia is strangely drawn to the boyish youth. In the end, the real Sebastian turns up, not dead after all, allowing for a happy ending of Olivia-Sebastian and Viola-Orsino pairings.

The biggest obstacle in a contemporary setting is finding a pretense to get Viola into male disguise, which She's the Man does by making Viola a soccer player with nowhere to play after Cornwall High cuts the girls' soccer team and the coach refuses to let her try out for the boys' team. Desperate to prove that she's good enough, she goes undercover as her brother at the private school Illyria (Sebastian having been thrown out of Cornwall) and joins their boys' team, planning to prove herself at the Cornwall-Illyria game. (Where is Sebastian all this time? Why, he's traipsed off to London for two weeks with his band, and no one at Illyria has yet met him.)

Once that's out of the way, the rest of the plot follows Shakespeare quite faithfully. "Sebastian" moves in with roommate (and Illyria soccer star) Duke Orsino; Duke likes Olivia, who's getting over a bad breakup; Olivia likes "Sebastian," who likes Duke. Viola proves her point, and Sebastian returns from London just in time to cause a few last-minute plot complications and allow for the couples to be happily paired off.

This is lightweight stuff, to be sure, but it doesn't take itself too seriously, and it's harmless fun. Amanda Bynes is quite likable as Viola, and has a knack for broad physical comedy; she's never even remotely convincing as a boy, but Shakespeare's gender-swap comedies are all about the willing suspension of disbelief. Channing Tatum as Duke is a bit bland, but pretty to look at, and for those (like me) who are shallow enough to notice such things, he takes his shirt off a lot.