The critics' take on the new Jane Addams bio, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Jan. 29 2002 2:31 PM

Prog Rockette

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Books
Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy, by Jean Bethke Elshtain (Basic Books). Mixed reviews for this quasi-biography of American history's most influential Progressive woman. Elshtain presents the "pioneering social worker and tough, visionary liberal" as an "exemplary public intellectual" who "remade charity work into a democratic social ethics" that "extolled a citizenry's responsibility for the poor outside the framework of Protestant conversion and conformity to middle-class norms" (Christine Stansell, the New York Times). Yet critics note that because Elshtain mainly analyzes Addams' writings—not her psychological, emotional, and political development—two problems result: 1) Elshtain "slashes reinterpretive arguments with scant idea of what was being interpreted in the first place" (Christopher Caldwell, the Wall Street Journal); and 2) the "woman who emerges" remains "the familiar public figure—noble" but "not altogether engaging" (Publishers Weekly). (Click here to read Elshtain's House of Representatives testimony on the ethical implications of human cloning.)— A.B.

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Music
AOI: Bionix, by De La Soul (Tommy Boy). Reasonably bright notices for the second volume of the rap masters' "Art Official Intelligence" series. Though critics note their "de rigueur" employment of various producers and guest stars, the group are considered both "more lyrically focused" than in the past and devoid of bling-bling pretense (Lisa Hageman, CMJ New Music Report). Reviewers also praise the album's social messages: Song topics "juxtapose and conflate" the "bitter and the sweet" with riffs on "our cultural obsession with weight, the power of faith against injustice," and the religious sway of peer pressure (Britt Robson, the Washington Post). If only, lament Time Out's critics, they didn't "spoil it" all with "a few tracks of misogynist nastiness and tedious dope skits." (Click here to visit the group's Web site.)— A.B.

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Movies
I Am Sam (New Line). To enjoy this film, you "have to buy" Sean Penn as a mentally challenged father vying, with Michelle Pfeiffer as his attorney, to keep his 7-year-old daughter. Some reviewers do, saying Penn "really captures the physical qualities of the role" (Michael Wilmington, the Chicago Tribune). Others, like Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, complain that Penn just "waves his arms around like flippers" and speaks in "the goo-goo voice of a big, effeminate baby." Still, a few say that in spite of an "efficient cast," which includes Diane Weist and Mary Steenburgen (Rex Reed, the New York Observer), "the bargeloads of thorny reality the movie evades are stupefying" (Michael Atkinson, the Village Voice). The consensus: a cheesy Kramer vs. Kramer meets Rain Man. (Click here for the official Web site.)— A.B.

Storytelling (Fine Line). Esteem for writer-director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness), a "master of maxing embarrassment who dares the discomfited viewer to laugh at obviously incorrect spectacles of pain or humiliation" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice). About "the inevitable tendency of narrative to distort, exploit, and wound" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times), Storytelling is split into two tales: one film, called "Fiction," about an '80s writing student humiliated by her professor in both the classroom and the bedroom; the other, called "Nonfiction," about a filmmaker documenting the life of a high-school patsy. Most laud Solondz for an ear "preternaturally attuned" to the American idiom's "self-deluding pieties and scrambled certainties" (Scott). But the squeamish, like the New York Observer's Andrew Sarris, cry "misanthrope" and "misogynist" yet again. (Click here to read an interview with Solondz on his brand of black comedy.)—A.B.

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Music
I Am Sam (V2). This album of Beatles songs covered by contemporary artists like Eddie Vedder and Aimee Mann gets weakly positive reviews. As Rolling Stone's Barry Walters says, the Beatles' "original arrangements and renderings are so definitive that no one in pop's history has ever improved them." That's still the case with this collection, though "the songs are so well-crafted that ruining them is virtually impossible" (Walters). Most everyone stays "musically true to the original versions" (Lisa Hageman, CMJ), with exceptions including Grandaddy's cover of "Revolution" and Nick Cave's "Let It Be." But even if there are "few radical reinterpretations, these songs are like old friends" (Tom Sinclair, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here for the movie's Web site.)— B.M.L.

Adam Baer is a culture critic for the New York Sun and contributor to the New York Times Book Review, Travel + Leisure, and Slate, among other publications.

Ben Mathis-Lilley edits the Slatest. Follow @Slatest on Twitter.

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