Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 10 1997 3:30 AM


(posted Wednesday, April 9; to be composted Wednesday, April 16)
Theater       A Doll's House (Belasco Theatre, New York). "It just doesn't happen that often, and when it does you sit there, open-mouthed, grateful, admiring and shaken, and think: 'This is why I love the theatre,' " raves the New York Times' chief theater critic, Ben Brantley. Other reviews of this production of Ibsen's oft-performed magnum opus, imported from London's West End, are less blurbable but equally enthusiastic. Praise goes mainly to Nora, played by London stage actress Janet McTeer as an erotic woman in the throes of self-discovery rather than as a dry protofeminist. "This is a revelatory performance, the kind that takes a familiar play, gives it a hard shake and make us experience it anew" (Richard Zoglin, Time).
k Movies       The Saint (Paramount Pictures). A remake of the hit '60s TV action series, with Val Kilmer (Batman Forever) in the Roger Moore role. Critics say the movie makes no sense whatsoever. Kilmer, who plays a free-lance criminal, battles the Moscow Mafia and beds Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas), who plays a nuclear physicist--but nobody knows why he does either. "There's something rather bracing in the thought that Paramount Pictures chose to offload enormous sums of money on what is essentially a Dadaist experiment," writes Anthony Lane in The New Yorker. When Kilmer's character, a master of disguise, dons elaborate wigs and affects foreign accents, he winds up looking silly, "conjur[ing] up memories of Jerry Lewis" (Mike Clark, USA Today). (Click here for The Saint's site. Also see David Edelstein's take on The Saint in his review of action films.)

      Paradise Road (Fox Searchlight Pictures). Solid performances from a formidable cast, including recent Academy Award winner Frances McDormand and Glenn Close, are apparently not enough to save this World War II movie about an Indonesian women's prison from its script. Critics say director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) relies on war-movie clichés--"Can we predict that the well-spoken Japanese officer some of the survivors meet when they stumble ashore on Sumatra will turn out to be a sadist?" (Richard Schickel, Time)--and oppressive nobility. Of the performance by Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice , Lane writes, "Why the entire Japanese Army doesn't fall to its knees and commit mass ritual suicide in her honor is, quite frankly, beyond comprehension."

      Inventing the Abbotts (Twentieth Century Fox). According to critics, Circle of Friends director Pat O'Connor's new movie is meant to be a critique of stifling '50s mores: Two working-class brothers, carrying the "class struggle on their shoulders," fall for two well-to-do sisters. But William McDonald, writing in the New York Times, concludes that the film actually affirms quintessential American myths about the irrelevance of class--"We're really all alike in the end." The film's performances--aside from those of Joaquin Phoenix and Liv Tyler--are said to be as bland as the period they depict. The New York Times ' Janet Maslin says, "There's more dewy glamour than genuine urgency to this slender story."


      That Old Feeling (Universal Pictures). Bette Midler's latest vehicle, directed by Carl Reiner, harks back to '50s screwball comedies: Midler and her ex-husband (Dennis Farina) "carry on like horny teenagers" in the middle of their daughter's wedding. But the film "might not have passed muster in summer stock during Eisenhower's first term," says the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern. Midler emerges unscathed. "[She] knows who she is, and what it is she should do: Walk loudly and carry a big shtick" (John Anderson, Newsday). (The official Web site has stills and clips.)


Books       Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997). Obituaries dwell on Allen Ginsberg the counterculture icon rather than Allen Ginsberg the poet. Attention goes to his attention-grabbing antics: his promotion of LSD; his expulsion from what was then Czechoslovakia; his crush on Che Guevara; his "be-ins"; and his relationships with Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Bob Dylan. Reviewers who do focus on Ginsberg's writing accept uncritically his claim that he is a scion of the Walt Whitman/William Carlos Williams tradition, "firmly established in the mainstream of American literature" (Wilborn Hampton, the New York Times). (To hear Ginsberg reading, see S LATE's " The Week/The Spin.")
      After the Madness: A Judge's Own Prison Memoir, by Sol Wachtler (Random House). In 1992, New York state's chief judge went mad, began stalking and harassing an ex-mistress, and ultimately went to jail for 15 months. Reviewers are of two minds about this memoir of his stay in prison. Some find his fall from grace cathartic and inspirational. "Mr. Wachtler has become a better judge of himself," says the Wall Street Journal. He has become an acute critic of the criminal-justice system, says the New York Observer. Others dismiss After the Madness as yet another self-pitying confessional memoir. "Wachtler regularly undermines his own argument by letting his ego and sense of martyrdom get in the way," says Newsday. The New York Times Book Review considers the book's contributions to the prison debate trite.


      The Big Picture, by Douglas Kennedy (Hyperion). The British novelist's U.S. debut receives unprecedented hype (Disney-owned Hyperion has bought 30-second spots that will be shown on 792 movie screens), and critics think it deserves the attention. The book places a neurotic would-be photographer at the center of a traditional thriller and allows him to meditate on substantial questions (the power of photography, ethnicity, suburban rot). The New York Times' Christopher Lehmann-Haupt says the story is "handled with surprising sensitivity ... particularly considering Mr. Kennedy's punchy prose and his brutal, edge-of-the-seat plot." Objections come from unlikely quarters: Both USA Today and Entertainment Weekly find the novelist's aspiration to Grisham-hood unbecoming.

Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

Franklin Foer is a Slate contributing editor and the author of World Without Mind.


Updates:       The New Yorker's John Lahr dismisses the rave reviews for Horton Foote's The Young Man From Atlanta: "The drama is a house of cards propped up on the foundations of powerful performances" ... The backlash against the backlash against the backlash against The Kiss begins: In the New York Observer, Adam Begley prints a recantation from child psychologist Robert Coles, one of the book's blurbists. Coles says he "somehow missed the fact that [Ms. Harrison] was married and had children. ... My God, what are those children to think?" In the backlash-against-the-backlash department, another Kiss blurbist, Tobias Wolff, publishes a piece on the New York Times op-ed page claiming that hostility to The Kiss stems from a hostility to memoirs in general. Critics "want to be seen as bucking the trend, when of course they could not be more au courant, for it is now entirely the fashion with our self-deputized Border Patrol to mew in dismay at the wistful appearance of any new memoir at the gate of Literature."
Recent "Summary Judgment" columns: April 2:
  • Book--Texaco, by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov;
  • Book--John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity, by Garry Wills;
  • Book--The Divorce Culture, by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead;
  • Book--When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth, by Fernanda Eberstadt;
  • Movie--The Devil's Own;
  • Movie--Chasing Amy;
  • Theater--The Young Man From Atlanta.

March 26:

  • Event--The 69th Academy Awards;
  • Art--"1997 Biennial Exhibition" (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City);
  • Art--Willem de Kooning (1904-1997);
  • Movie--Liar Liar;
  • Movie--Crash;
  • Movie--Selena;
  • Movie--The Godfather;
  • Book--The Coming Conflict with China, by Ross H. Munro and Richard Bernstein;
  • Book--Radical Son: A Journey Through Our Times, by David Horowitz.

March 19:

  • Movie--Return of the Jedi: Special Edition;
  • Movie--City of Industry;
  • Opera--Jackie O;
  • Theater--Antony and Cleopatra;
  • Book--Arkansas: Three Novellas, by David Leavitt;
  • Book--Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague, by Richard Rhodes;
  • Book--Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, by David Remnick;
  • Book--The Three-Arched Bridge, by Ismail Kadare, translated by John Hodgson.

March 12:

  • Movie--Private Parts;
  • Movie--Jungle 2 Jungle;
  • Theater--A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum;
  • Book--The Kiss: A Memoir, by Kathryn Harrison;
  • Book--Giovanni's Gift, by Bradford Morrow;
  • Art--"Exiles and Émigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler";
  • Television--The Practice.

--Compiled by Franklin Foer and the editors of SLATE.


Illustrations by Mark Alan Stamaty.