Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 22 1997 3:30 AM



Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

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


Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia, by Peter Maas (HarperCollins). Critical and commercial success for the biography of Gravano, "the most famous snitch in Mob history," who brought down John "the Teflon Don" Gotti, offed 18 people, and ordered his own brother-in-law's execution. Drawing on extensive interviews with the Bull, it is a "brilliantly constructed and grimly fascinating ... morality play on the subject of loyalty" (Donald Westlake, the New York Times Book Review). Though it retreads tired observations about Mafia life, Underboss still enriches the "portrait of a subculture some of us can't get enough of" (Bruce Handy, Time). (HarperCollins plugs the book.)

The Actual: A Novella, by Saul Bellow (Viking). The 81-year-old author's latest is admired as a "mature work": same old Bellovian subject (Jewish man brooding over a woman), but a more subdued, elegiac tone. Almost everyone lavishes praise on the book, not minding the absurdities they find in the plot (such as the emergence of a 92-year-old trillionaire who befriends the brooding man). "The Actual is not a young man's piece of fiction. ... It is instead something far more rare: the work of a great master still locked in unequal combat with Eros and Time," says Louis Begley in the New York Times Book Review. "Bellow writes now with as much authority and energy as he did nearly half a century ago" (Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post).


Roseanne (May 20, ABC, 8 p.m. EDT/PDT). Roseanne's finale after nine seasons leaves reviewers unimpressed, but it occasions encomiums for the show's working-class grit. "The most groundbreaking kitchen-sink sitcom since All in the Family," declares Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly. Most agree, however, that the show declined in its last years, especially after Roseanne's character won the lottery and the family forsook its proletarian roots--while the actress herself mutated from caustic social critic into pop icon. "A rich Roseanne Conner," says the New York Times' Caryn James, "was as bizarre as the conspicuous physical makeover that no one in the Conner family ever mentioned." (See David Plotz's "Assessment" of Roseanne in Slate and ABC's page for the show. Also in Slate: Larry Doyle's "Dispatches" on sweeps month.)


David Blaine: Street Magic (ABC, May 19, 8 p.m. EDT/PDT). Blaine, a 23-year-old hipster magician with a goatee and no fancy equipment, is proclaimed a performer for the people, an anti-David Copperfield. "Instead of ornate props and gorgeous showgirls, he shares his act lovingly with ordinary men and women in the street," writes John O'Connor in the New York Times. But many find an average performer behind the populist hype. "Corny card tricks and coin feints and levitation stunts [updated] with post-grunge chic," declares Time's David Handelman, adding that "Blaine's best magic trick may be his own career." (ABC's site asks: "Is he an Entertainer, a Con man, the Devil, or a Guru?")



Cannes International Film Festival (France). Complaints about Cannes' overwrought glitz subside during the festival's second week. It "reasserted its claim to seriousness," says the New York Times' Janet Maslin. Credit is given to the two winners of the Palme d'Or: Iran's The Taste of Cherries, about suicide; and Japan's The Eel, about a man who murdered his wife. Still, some whining lingers. "The quintessential Cannes fortnight, indeed, would involve no films at all--just invitations to parties that never happen and rumors of films that will never be made," says The New Yorker's Anthony Lane. (See the "Summary Judgment" entry for Cannes' first week.)



Night Falls on Manhattan (Paramount Pictures). Critics mostly dismiss Serpico director Sidney Lumet's 41st film as hackwork. Rehashing his favorite subject of New York City police corruption, Lumet slaps together, they say, an implausible plot (a year after law school, an ex-cop becomes a crusading district attorney), formulaic characters (bad-ass drug dealer, idealistic liberal defense lawyer), and preachy moralizing. ("The predictable lesson--justice isn't cut and dry--clogs the film's gears," says the Washington Post's Eric Brace.) Among Lumet's defenders are the Los Angles Times' Kevin Thomas, who says the director makes the unlikely plot twists believable "the old-fashioned way: through interaction with a screen full of strongly drawn, fully dimensioned, psychologically valid characters."

Love! Valour! Compassion! (Fine Line Features). Terrence McNally's Tony-winning play from 1994 about eight gay men who vacation together doesn't translate well to film, critics say. They regard the adaptation, which stars Seinfeld shlub Jason Alexander, as a "stodgy affair" (Elliott Stein, the Village Voice). And the hypercampy characters feel like relics of an era when gay men were routinely lampooned--"more TheBoys in the Band than a gay Big Chill," says Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly. The New York Times' Stephen Holden, in dissent, extols the film's "richly nuanced" performances and its "intense mood of Chekhovian sadness." (A trailer is available here.)


The Wizard of Oz (Madison Square Garden). Outraged cries of "what were they thinking?" greet this stage adaptation (starring Roseanne as the Wicked Witch of the West) of the classic 1939 movie. A "charmless, surprisingly chintzy affair" (Greg Evans, Variety), the play features a script eviscerated of interesting characters. The sets--a Munchkinland that consists of wooden cutouts of milk-bottle vases, for example--would be "unimpressive even for a cost-cutting resident theater." "If it only had a brain," wishes Peter Marks of the New York Times.



Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon amasses more raves, notably from Louis Menand in the New York Review of Books and T. Coraghessan Boyle in the New York Times BookReview. Writes Boyle, "Mason & Dixon is a groundbreaking book, a book of heart and fire and genius, and there is nothing quite like it in our literature, except maybe V. and Gravity's Rainbow."... The New Republic's Jed Perl attacks The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik and the New York Times' Michael Kimmelman for their elitist attacks on Picasso's popularity. "If they are frequently just plain hostile to Picasso, it could be because they are annoyed at the thought that the public doesn't really need a commentator's help."

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns


Architecture--New Amsterdam Theater;

Event--Cannes International Film Festival;

Movie--Father's Day;

Movie--The Fifth Element;

Movie--The Designated Mourner;

Television--The Odyssey;

Book--The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters From Prison and Other Writings, by Wei Jingsheng, translated and edited by Kristina M. Torgeson;

Book--Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, by Arlie Russell Hochschild;



Book--Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon;

Book/Television--American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, by Robert Hughes, and American Visions (PBS);

Book--Echo House, by Ward Just;

Book--Reading in the Dark, by Seamus Deane;

Architecture--Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial;

Television--The Last Don (CBS);

Movie--Children of the Revolution;



Movie--Romy and Michele's High School Reunion;

Pop--Share My World, by Mary J. Blige;

Book--Locked in the Cabinet, by Robert Reich;

Book--Anything Your Little Heart Desires: An American Family Story, by Patricia Bosworth;

Book--Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, by Elaine Showalter;


Theater--The Little Foxes;

Dance--"In Honor of the Divine Lou Harrison," the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Book--The Gospel According to the Son, by Norman Mailer;

Book--American Pastoral, by Philip Roth;

Book--W.B. Yeats: A Life. 1: The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914, by R.F. Foster;

Book--Purple America, by Rick Moody;

Television--In the Gloaming;

Opera--The Ring of the Nibelung;

Movie--Murder at 1600;


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