Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 26 1998 3:30 AM



Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

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


The American Experience: Reagan (PBS; Feb. 23 and 24, 9 p.m. ET/PT). Bipartisan applause for a documentary of the Gipper's life and times. Reviewers praise its evenhanded take on his policies as well as his personality: He's said to have been both intellectual simpleton and political master. Conservatives profess shock that something so "remarkably balanced" was produced by "offensively biased" PBS (Jay Nordlinger, the Weekly Standard). An exultant Wall Street Journal editorial says the show signals that "honest liberals" have found a "new appreciation" for Reagan. (PBS plugs the series here.)

The Wedding (ABC; Feb. 22 and 23, 9 p.m. ET/PT). Book-club founder Oprah Winfrey wins even more encomiums for bringing "great art to the mainstream" (Caryn James, the New York Times). Critics praise Winfrey for producing a miniseries based on Harlem Renaissance veteran Dorothy West's novel about an interracial relationship in the 1950s. Plaudits to the series for popularizing West's underappreciated novel (written in 1995, when she was 88) and for exposing the black bourgeoisie's own snobbery. Dissenters assail the soap-opera plot: "[H]istorical information ... is no substitute for drama" (John Kock, the Boston Globe). (See Seth Stevenson's "Assessment" of Winfrey in Slate.)

The Closer (CBS; Mondays, 9 p.m. ET/PT). Magnum P.I.'s Tom Selleck becomes the latest actor to attempt a comeback via a sitcom (about a glitzy advertising executive who loses his job). But critics say Selleck's good looks can't make up for his inept comic timing or for the show's witless humor--mostly cheap sexual innuendo and predictable punch lines. "A dismal sitcom that seems to embody all that is wrong with dismal sitcoms" (Tom Shales, the Washington Post).



Palmetto (Castle Rock Entertainment). German director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum) tries his hand at film noir, but most critics say he should stick to "adapting serious literary works" (Jack Mathews, Newsday). They complain that his film--about an ex-con (Woody Harrelson) who falls for the wife (Elisabeth Shue) of a dying millionaire--overdoes the shadowy lighting and complicated plot twists of the genre. Schlöndorff, says the New York Times' Stephen Holden, wants to "out-noir every other film noir." Others praise Harrelson's humorous turn as a dullard and profess surprise that Shue makes such a sexy seductress. (Click here for Palmetto's official site.)



Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks (HarperCollins). Praise for The Sweet Hereafter writer Russell Banks' first historical novel, about the abolitionist zealot John Brown. "[H]is best novel, a furious, sprawling drama," says Time's John Skow. Banks tells the story from the perspective of Brown's son, who joined his father in his famous 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry--a narrative choice that allows Banks to show "the familial repercussions of living with a visionary and martyr" (Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times). Some critics complain that Banks sermonizes.



Fernand Léger (Museum of Modern Art, New York City). The French painter's first major American show in 43 years occasions critical revision. Reviewers find Léger less the "stolid, ruminative" Marxist and more the witty "virtuoso" (Robert Hughes, Time). While they still celebrate his depictions of the early-20th-century city, they now also notice his little-known forays into Dadaism and Fauvism. His endurance is chalked up to his training as an architect and his embrace of bright colors. "Even the lesser Légers ... exist at an esthetic altitude that few living painters will ever reach" (Hilton Kramer, the New York Observer). (MoMA plugs the show here.)


Freak (Cort Theatre, New York City). With his latest one-man show, actor John Leguizamo is said to join the ranks of great such comic performers as Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin. The most hilarious bits, critics say, are his riffs on masturbation and on growing up as a working-class Latino. His ability to act out a conversation among five people leads the New York Times' Ben Brantley to conclude that "[t]here's a whole city inside this young man's slender frame." Dissenting, the Wall Street Journal's Donald Lyons complains that Leguizamo's rants about Latino stereotypes make him "a self-important bore."



Raves for Mrs. Dalloway keep coming, but a more critical take also emerges. The New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann says the film proves "that some novels resist adaptation to the core of their beings." The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern chides the film for turning "Mrs. Redgrave, one of the most vibrant actors of our time, into a passive, opaque, mannequin of regret." ... Critics seek to explain the stunning success of Titanic. Theories: 1) Leonardo DiCaprio is a teen idol for the ages. 2) Kate Winslet's character "helps us understand that a woman's liberation is not a dated concept" (Karen Schoemer, Newsweek). 3) The hero dies, and that's what we want to see. 4) Everybody needs a good cry.

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns



Movie--Mrs. Dalloway;

Movie--The Wedding Singer;

Book--The Street Lawyer, by John Grisham;

Book--Riven Rock, by T. Coraghessan Boyle;

Television--18th Winter Olympics (CBS);

Theater--The Vagina Monologues.

Movie--Nil by Mouth;

Movie--Blues Brothers 2000;

Oscar Nominations, early reviews;

Theater--Shopping and Fucking;

Book--Jack Maggs: A Novel, by Peter Carey;

Book--Black and Blue, by Anna Quindlen;

Music--Yield, by Pearl Jam;

Art--"China: 5,000 Years" (Guggenheim).

Theater--The Capeman;

Television--Clinton-Sex-Scandal Coverage;

Television--Dawson's Creek (The WB);

Movie--Great Expectations;

Movie--Desperate Measures;

Book--Cuba Libre, by Elmore Leonard;

Book--The House Gun, by Nadine Gordimer.

Movie--Wag the Dog;

Movie--Gingerbread Man;

Movie--Spice World;

Book--Birthday Letters, by Ted Hughes;

Book--Night Train, by Martin Amis;

Book--Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan;

Event--Super Bowl XXXII;

Dance--"Mikhail Baryshnikov: An Evening of Music and Dance With the White Oak Chamber Ensemble."

--Franklin Foer