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



Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

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


Two Girls and a Guy (Fox Searchlight Pictures). Despite raves for Robert Downey Jr.'s performance in director James Toback's comedy, critics deem Two Girls bathetic. Downey plays an actor who's two-timing two beautiful women, played by Heather Graham and Natalie Gregson Wagner. Critics find the women's continued attraction to him implausible and object to the film's lugubrious dialogue about the futility of love. Downey's character, a self-destructive liar, reminds critics of Downey himself--a recovering heroin addict. He "has clearly had a lot of practice trying to explain the unexplainable in 12-step groups" (David Edelstein, Slate). (Click here for the official site.)

Sliding Doors (Miramax). Critics debate the merits of the star, Gwyneth Paltrow, more than anything else in this "slender romantic comedy" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). The Washington Post's Rita Kempley calls Paltrow a "fair reminder of the young Audrey Hepburn," but Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum says her "image project[s] better in fashion-magazine stills than in motion." The film is credited with a clever conceit (it weaves together two versions of a British PR agent's life) but is said to suffer from simplistic characters, windy dialogue, and a facile moral message (life is predestined). (Edelstein reviews the film in Slate. Miramax plugs it here.)


Damascus Gate, by Robert Stone (Houghton Mifflin). Most critics say the Outerbridge Reach author's meditation on religious fervor, set in the Holy Land, comes up short. Stone's thriller about the sojourns of a half-Jewish, half-Catholic journalist in Jerusalem's Old City is said to cut to the heart of zealotry. But its take on religion is simple-minded: "In this novel one is either a messianist or a nonbeliever" (Jonathan Rosen, the New York Times Book Review). A few reviewers say he succeeds entirely: "Leave it to a goy to write the definitive novel about Israel" (Daphne Merkin, The New Yorker).


Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, by Barbara Goldsmith (Knopf); Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored, by Mary Gabriel (Algonquin). Two biographies--the first serious ones since 1928--win praise for rescuing the colorful Woodhull (1838-1927) from historical oblivion. Her claims to fame: A onetime prostitute, she founded a brokerage house, ran for president, championed free love, and brought down the preacher Henry Ward Beecher by publicizing a sex scandal involving him. Goldsmith's biography is deemed novelistic but sensationalist, Gabriel's scholarly but dry. Still unsure of her significance, critics declare Woodhull "America's most bizarre feminist" (Francine Du Plessix Gray, The New Yorker).



Merlin (NBC; April 26 and 27, 9 p.m. ET/PT). One of the costliest made-for-TV movies--a telling of the King Arthur legend from the wizard's perspective--is judged one of the best. It "deserves to be shown annually," says Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker. NBC's $30 million expenditure is said to have paid off, with realistic special effects (fire-breathing dragons, a talking horse more convincing than Mr. Ed) and all-star performances from Sam Neill, Helena Bonham Carter, Isabella Rossellini, and Martin Short. Critics are relieved Merlin has none of the campiness endemic to medieval TV dramas. (NBC plugs its "television event" here.)



"Alexander Calder: 1898-1976" (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). A retrospective rescues the American sculptor from his reputation as the unsubstantial "user-friendly modernist" (Roberta Smith, the New York Times). Reviewers say the show highlights the way Surrealism inspired Calder's now-forgotten grotesque sculptures from the 1930s. His own innovations--especially the mobile--are credited with influencing other major sculptors, including Picasso and David Smith. Critics chalk up Calder's previous low standing to the abundance of sculptures he made in the '60s for corporate plazas, which are labeled "mostly boring" (Robert Hughes, Time). (Click here for the National Gallery site.)


Kirov Opera (Metropolitan Opera, New York City). Critics applaud the St. Petersburg-based company's 18 day stint in New York. "Just long enough to leave the American opera world with a welcome legacy of Russianization," says Newsday's Justin Davidson. A spate of profiles heaps praise on the flamboyant conductor Valery Gergiev, who saved the Kirov financially as Russia went capitalist. Critics focus on Gergiev's promotion of lesser-known works by Russian composers and on his unusual arrangements. While "the great orchestras are all sounding pretty much alike, the Kirov has a character all its own" (Matthew Gurewitsch, the New York Times).

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns


Movie--Wild Man Blues;

Movie--Object of My Affection;



Television--Seinfeld (NBC);

Book--Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, by Elizabeth Wurtzel;

Book--Closed Chambers: The First Eyewitness Account of the Epic Struggles Inside the Supreme Court, by Edward Lazarus;

Art--"Shadows of a Hand: The Drawings of Victor Hugo."

Movie--My Giant;

Movie--Cityof Angels;

Movie--The Big One;

Television--Brave New World (NBC);

Book--Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1961-1973, by Robert Dallek;

Book--Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960, by William Boyd;

Book--Quarantine, by Jim Crace;


Movie--Lost in Space;

Movie--The Butcher Boy;

Movie--The Spanish Prisoner;

Music--Left of the Middle, by Natalie Imbruglia;

Television--Push (ABC);

Television--Frontline: From Jesus to Christ--The First Christians (PBS);

Book--An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears;

Book--Cavedweller, by Dorothy Allison.


Movie--The Newton Boys;

Television--From the Earth to the Moon (HBO);

Television--Teletubbies (PBS);

Theater--The Sound of Music;

Book--The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, by Jane Smiley;

Book--Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, by E.O. Wilson;

Fashion--Fall Lines.

--Franklin Foer