Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 19 1998 3:30 AM



Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

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


Sphere (Warner Bros.). Despite an all-star cast (Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharon Stone) and a Michael Crichton story, Barry Levinson's latest directorial effort is a big-budget bust. The undersea sci-fi adventure is dismissed as "another variation of the same old supernatural junk" (Mike Clark, USA Today). Critics deplore the film's pretentious pronouncements about man's place in the universe and say Levinson is "out of his element" trying to build suspense (Rita Kempley, the Washington Post). Dissenting, the New York Times' Janet Maslin calls the stars' performances irresistible and salutes Levinson for tackling a new genre. (Click here for the official site.)

Mrs. Dalloway (First Look Pictures). Finally, critics say, a film adaptation that does its novel justice. They praise director Marleen Gorris (Antonia's Line) for retaining Virginia Woolf's stream-of-consciousness style (via voice-overs) and mingling of memory and reality (using flashbacks). The screenplay, too, "succeeds in preserving the mandarin lyricism of Woolf's language without slipping into the 'poetic' " (Daphne Merkin, The New Yorker). Critics also applaud Vanessa Redgrave's turn as the wistful middle-age English socialite--the only actress, says New York's David Denby, "large enough to hold together this plotless story." (A clip is available here.)

The Wedding Singer (New Line Cinema). This Reagan-era romantic comedy is said to herald the replacement of '70s chic with '80s nostalgia. Saturday Night Live alum Adam Sandler successfully transforms himself from bumbling wise-ass into lovable leading man. Critics like the jokes about DeLoreans, Michael Jackson's glove, and other timepieces but say the movie never transcends its formulaic plot. "Little more than an excuse for a soundtrack album" (John Anderson, Newsday). Others object that it "reconfigures the '80s as a decade of goofy lost innocence" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here for the official site.)



The Street Lawyer, by John Grisham (Doubleday). Critics pan the best-selling author's thriller about a white-shoe lawyer who quits his firm to champion the homeless. Even for a Grisham novel, The Street Lawyer is said to be insubstantial, with "an unlikable hero, a slapdash plot and some truly awful prose" (Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times). Grisham's social commentary is called both worthy and heavy-handed: His "depictions of the poor read like something turned in by a cub reporter" (Deirdre Donahue, USA Today). The book is expected to sell out its 2.8-million-copy first run. (Click here to read Malcolm Gladwell's less derisive review in Slate.)

Riven Rock, by T. Coraghessan Boyle (Viking). Critics remain divided over the Road to Wellville author: Is he a gothic genius or annoyingly smug? His latest novel, about an insane heir to a manufacturing fortune who's forbidden to see women, is deemed diffuse and stocked with caricatures. But even those who pan the novel continue to celebrate his "caffeinated prose, his bravura showmanship [and his] ... entertaining gallery of madmen" (Kakutani).



18th Winter Olympics (CBS; Nagano, Japan). Reviewers say the anemic ratings for the winter games are deserved. Like NBC's '96 Summer Olympics programming, many complain, CBS's coverage features not enough athleticism and too many sappy human-interest stories. "How much melodramatic hokum can viewers take?" (Tom Shales, the Washington Post). Others complain there aren't enough such stories, citing the compelling drama of the Russian figure skater whose abusive partner kicked her in the head with his skate. One overall plus: "John Tesh works for NBC" (Howard Rosenberg, the Los Angeles Times).



The Vagina Monologues (Hammerstein Ballroom, New York City). A coalition of battered women's advocacy groups recasts Feb. 14 as Vagina Day. Critical acclaim ensues. The groups sponsored a celebrity-filled benefit, featuring Whoopi Goldberg, Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon, and others performing excerpts from playwright Eve Ensler's off-Broadway Vagina Monologues. Critics' favorite bits: a celebration by Close of the word "cunt" and a pitch by Goldberg for the use of fuzzy stirrups in gynecological exams. Ensler's riotous work is said to refute the rap that feminists are humorless: "What it was like to see Lenny Bruce perform in the beginning" (Anita Gates, the New York Times).


Spin and Rolling Stone simultaneously run covers extolling the virtues of South Park. Rolling Stone attributes the show's success to its comic sensibility, "a sort of humor that's distinctly no-brow--an edgy, rude point of view" (David Wild). ... In the New Republic, James Wood calls Toni Morrison's Paradise trite and sentimental: "It forces magic and pure rhapsodies on its characters like a demented anesthetist bullying patients with laughing gas."


Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

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."


Movie--Sundance Film Festival;

Movie--Live Flesh;


Book--Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65, by Taylor Branch;

Book--Shadows on the Hudson, by Isaac Bashevis Singer;

Television--South Park (Comedy Central);

Art--"Arthur Dove: A Retrospective" (Whitney Museum).

--Franklin Foer