Intelligent but Artificial

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 30 2001 12:00 AM

Intelligent but Artificial

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Movies
A.I. (Warner Bros.). The brainchild of the late director Stanley Kubrick and grown-up Wunderkind Steven Spielberg, this futuristic sci-fi fairy tale about a lovable robot's Pinocchiolike desire to become a real boy stirs critics. The reviews reflect a complex response, finding the movie" [i]ntriguing, inspired, flawed, misbegotten and fascinating," (Desson Howe, the Washington Post). Some elements get across-the-board praise: 1) the ambition of the project; 2) the dark tone ("A.I. is a chilly fairy tale, a spooky and disturbing film," says Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times); 3) the performance of Haley Joel Osment as the young bot David; and 4) Jude Law as Gigolo Joe, of whom Howe says, " His performance as a half-machine half-soul is balletic, precise and memorable." The movie falters, though, when"Mr. Spielberg seems to be attempting the improbable feat of melding Kubrick's chilly, analytical style with his own warmer, needier sensibility" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). (Read David Edelstein's review for Slate here.)—S.G.

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crazy/beautiful (Buena Vista Pictures). The teen love story could be the usual rote adolescent dreck, but it isn't. Critics find that the "brown-and-white romance" (Jess Cagle, Time) between a bad-little-rich girl and a hardworking boy from the other side of the tracks transcends melodrama. Starring sweetheart Kirstin Dunst as the spoiled brat and Jay Hernandez as the industrious blue-collar go-getter, the film "occasionally runs aground on melodramatic writing" (Stephanie Zacharek, Salon). But a breakout performance by Dunst—"emotions [she] portrays with such raw authenticity have been pulled out of the dusty warehouse of melodramatic convention" (A. O. Scott, the New York Times)—and the sexy spark between the two stars help to elevate the movie: "Their potent chemistry brings the story alive (no easy task)" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). (crazy/beautiful's official site features a great trailer for the movie.)— S.G.

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Books
Empire Falls, by Richard Russo (Alfred A. Knopf). Empire Falls, a dying industrial town in central Maine, is a place all the critics are thrilled to visit. Russo's fifth novel "is his best yet, a wise, wry, big-hearted epic" (Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today). Although filled with a "bumptious cast of sharp-tongued women, sarcastic old-timers, and … a tone of affable, chop-busting comedy darkened by minor chords of heartbreak and frustration" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times), the central character, Miles Roby, is sad-sack, good-egg of a guy who 20 years ago dropped out of college to return home to care for his dying mother. "No one writes better than novelist Richard Russo about the gritty dreams and quiet desperation of small towns" (Minzesheimer). "Russo's feathery foreshadowing is perhaps his finest touch, in a novel with finery all about" (Michael Prager, the Boston Globe). (Listen to Russo read from Empire Falls.)— L.S.

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To purchase this book from barnesandnoble.com, click here.  

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The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon (Scribner). Critics seem loath to criticize this book that's both a memoir about the author's battle with depression and an exhaustive survey of the disease, but even so, the reception is somewhat mixed. The least enthusiastic claim it's "a loose and baggy monster that ought to have been cut by about a third" (Gail Caldwell, the Boston Globe). Some counter that the "bulk (given its rambles through biomedical research and cultural history, and its … interviews with other people suffering from depression) renders it oddly reassuring" (Joyce Carol Oates, the New York Times). Most critics point to Solomon's account of his mother's death by assisted suicide as being particularly moving, but "[t]his sensitive material is rather swamped by the many reportorial pages that surround it" (Oates). Still, for "someone who doesn't know much about the topic—but who wants (or needs) to learn a lot, … [this book] will probably serve as the standard reference" (Scott McLemme, Newsday). (Read Slate's "Book Club" on Noonday Demon.)— L.S.

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To purchase this book from barnesandnoble.com, click here.

Laurie Snyder is Slate's copy chief.

Siân Gibby assists in editing the Faith-Based column. She copy-edits for Slate.