Highlights from the week in criticism.
Aug. 20 1998 3:30 AM




The Avengers (Warner Bros.). Warner Bros. refused to have an advance critics screening for this update of the beloved 1960s British TV show, and the reason is now obvious: The movie is "an unqualified disaster" (Dave Kehr, Daily News). Ralph Fiennes' painfully awkward John Steed and Uma Thurman's beautiful but empty Emma Peel are said to have none of the charm and sexual tension that graced their TV counterparts. Gene Seymour, in the Los Angeles Times, writes the closest thing to a positive review the movie is likely to get, calling Thurman's Peel "agreeably droll" and praising the "suitably preposterous plot." (Visit the official Web site.)

Return to Paradise (Polygram Filmed Entertainment). Outstanding performances from Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, and Joaquin Phoenix are thwarted by a so-so story line. The plot is a Manichaean moral dilemma: three traveling buddies buy a brick of hash while on vacation in Malaysia. One gets in trouble for it, and if the other two don't admit their complicity (and do time in a dangerous prison system), the one who was caught will be executed. Some critics praise it as having "the moody, disquieting undertow of a true moral thriller" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly), while others call it "too implausible for anyone to rescue" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). Slate's David Edelstein is basically pro: "The upshot might be melodrama, but it's melodrama with heart, bones, sinews, and tear ducts." (Click here to read his review.)

The Slums of Beverly Hills (20th Century Fox/Fox Searchlight Pictures). Critics say Tamara Jenkins' writing and directing debut is as refreshingly awkward and original as the film's teen-age heroine, Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne). The 15-year-old Vivian struggles with her developing sexuality and the crazy dynamics of her less than affluent family, which includes Alan Arkin as her baffled father and Marisa Tomei as her drug-addled cousin. Critics are slightly irritated by the film's tendency toward sitcom jokes and timing but nevertheless embrace the "affectionate humor" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times) Jenkins shows toward her characters. (Visit the official Web site.)



Whitechocolatespaceegg by Liz Phair (Matador/Capitol). Reviewers had speculated for four years about the effect of marriage and motherhood on the queen of sexual bravado and confessional songwriting. The consensus: Phair's long-awaited offering lacks the gritty low-fi feel and raunchy lyrics that characterized Exile in Guyville, her 1993 album, which won the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Album of the Year Award, but the new album is more diverse musically. Newsweek's Veronica Chambers claims the more grown-up Phair is "far more interesting than the bad girl she used to be." (Read more about Phair in Rolling Stone.)



The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations by Larry Tye (Crown). Critics marvel at the life and accomplishments of this public relations pioneer. Bernays was best known for his inventive publicity stunts and manipulation of the public's buying patterns through now commonplace tricks such as celebrity endorsement. Boston Globe writer Larry Tye is praised for thorough research and the ability to see through his subject's inflation of his accomplishments. The critics are not impressed with the book's confusing nonchronological structure. The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell argues that Bernays is not the father of public relations; that honor should go to Lester Wunderman. Others wonder at the brief treatment given to Bernays' relationship with his famous uncle, Sigmund Freud, "which should have formed the intellectual heart of Tye's book" (Ron Chernow, the New York Times). (Read the first chapter.)

Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons by Steven S. Gaines (Little, Brown & Co.). This "satisfyingly insiderish" (Alexandra Jacobs, Entertainment Weekly) history of life in the Hamptons is being compared to John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Some critics relish the combination of eccentric real-life characters and celebrity dirty laundry. Others dismiss the book for its dearth of sources and persistent focus on malicious gossip. M.G. Lord of the Washington Post calls the book "a smarmy, distasteful document in which Gaines fawns over the rich and powerful and attacks the weak and the dead." Jay McInerney, however, finds the book "eminently beachworthy" (The New Yorker). (Buy this book from Amazon.com.)


Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

Movie--Snake Eyes;

Movie--Halloween: H20;


Movie--How Stella Got Her Groove Back;

Book--Rainbow Six, by Tom Clancy;

Television--Jerry Seinfeld: I'm Telling You for the Last Time--Live on Broadway (HBO);

Television--The Upright Citizens Brigade (Comedy Central).


Art--"The Art of the Motorcycle";

Television--Lolita (Showtime);

Television--Maximum Bob (ABC);

Movies--Ever After: A Cinderella Story;

Movies--The Negotiator;

Book--Burn Rate, by Michael Wolff;

Death--Jerome Robins.

Book--The Modern Library's 100 Best English-Language Novels Since 1900;

Book--Point of Origin, by Patricia Cornwell;

Movie--Disturbing Behavior;


Movie--The Thief.

Movie--The Mask of Zorro;

Movie--Saving Private Ryan;

Movie--There's Something About Mary;

Music--Hello Nasty, by the Beastie Boys;

Book--Lucky Bastard, by Charles McCarry;

Theater--Twelfth Night;

Television--Drudge (Fox).

--Eliza Truitt