Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 23 1998 3:30 AM



Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

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


Wild Man Blues (Fine Line Features). Documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.) follows Sunday clarinetist Woody Allen on tour with a New Orleans jazz band. Reviewers assert Woody is "even more amusing and neurotic in real life than in his own movies" (Leah Rozen, People). (He suffers an anxiety attack on a Venetian gondola and rarely leaves his hotel rooms.) Soon-Yi Previn, now Allen's wife, comes off as a strong-willed foil to the famously whiny filmmaker. Cynics say Allen used the film to counter bad press and deliberately hammed up his insecurities for the camera.

The Object of My Affection (20th Century Fox). Tepid reviews for this romantic comedy by Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) about a pregnant woman (Jennifer Aniston) who wants her gay roommate (Paul Rudd) to help raise her child. It is "[r]iddled with cultural stereotypes, woe-is-me neurotic mopiness, and glib therapeutic compassion" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). Aniston's performance is called lackluster. "Actresses get attention for their hair when they don't draw you in with their features," says Slate's David Edelstein. USA Today's Susan Wloszczyna says the film signals the death of a genre. "Romantic comedy has been in a funk since women's lib and the pill popped the champagne bubbles of sexual tension." (A trailer is available here.)

Chinese Box (Trimark Pictures). Stunning shots of Hong Kong alleys and markets are said to overcome a flimsy plot in The Joy Luck Club director Wayne Wang's "love letter to his native city" (Kevin Thomas, the Los Angeles Times). In the story, co-written by novelist Paul Theroux, characters are metaphors for their countries: A dying British journalist (Jeremy Irons) interviews a Hong Kong hustler and falls in love with a Chinese ex-whore (Gong Li). Critics praise Wang for capturing "the essence of a great metropolis in the throes of change" (Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal).



Seinfeld: Final-Episode Roundup (NBC; May 14, 9 p.m. ET/PT). Hype for the sitcom's upcoming finale. Cover packages in Vanity Fair, Newsweek, and the New York Observer laud the show for having "reinvented the sitcom form" (Lynn Hirschberg, Vanity Fair) by abandoning the traditional two-plot structure and introducing more sophisticated and subversive humor. A few critics buck the trend. The Los Angeles Times' Howard Rosenberg deems Seinfeld's characters predictable and despicable: "Lower their grammar a few notches, and you can see this crowd with Jerry Springer." The New York Observer's Ron Rosenbaum mocks "the endlessly repeated mantra that the show's genius is that it's 'about nothing.' " (Click here for Summary Judgment's synthesis of critical opinion when Seinfeld decided to retire.)



Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, by Elizabeth Wurtzel (Doubleday). Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel's marketing strategy works: Critics heap attention on the dust jacket photo of Wurtzel topless and flipping her middle finger. The book itself--about "high-maintenance women" such as Amy Fisher and Sylvia Plath--is said by some reviewers to consist of inchoate fulminations on feminism and familiar rants on being single. Others say Wurtzel's notoriety as "someone so bent on self-destruction" makes it "redundant to bash" the book (Yahlin Chang, Newsweek). A few find Bitch less smug and more authentic than Prozac Nation. (Click here to read "Culturebox" on craziness as a career strategy.)

Closed Chambers: The First Eyewitness Account of the Epic Struggles Inside the Supreme Court, by Edward Lazarus (Times Books). Critics chide Lazarus for his kiss-and-tell about his year clerking for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun for betraying confidences and "sacrificing the dignity of the Supreme Court" (Richard Painter, the Wall Street Journal). But they still lap up his gossip. (Tidbits: Thurgood Marshall spent his days watching soap operas; Justices O'Connor and Kennedy are known as intellectual midgets.) Lazarus' claim that zealous clerks run the court is deemed "overstated" (David Garrow, the New York Times Book Review).



"Shadows of a Hand: The Drawings of Victor Hugo" (Drawing Center, New York City). On a wave of Hugo chic--the publication of a new biography and Hollywood versions of TheHunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables--an exhibit reveals the 19th century French novelist to have been a great draftsman as well. Hugo's drawings, many of them abstract images presaging the work of the 20th century painters Jean Dubuffet and Franz Kline, are "one of the most striking testimonies to the power of the unconscious in all Western art" (Robert Hughes, Time). (In Slate, Paul Berman remarks upon the Hugo renaissance.)

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns


Movie--My Giant;

Movie--City of 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;

Theater--Wait Until Dark.

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.

Event--70th Academy Awards;

Television--Sitcom Roundup;

Movie--Primary Colors;

Movie--Wild Things;

Movie--Taste of Cherry;



--Franklin Foer