The critics' take on Birthday Girl, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 1 2002 5:10 PM

Birthday Bash

Movies

Birthday Girl (Miramax). Hoots and hollers for the now-single Nicole Kidman, who stars in this "antic British love-on-the-run thriller" from director and co-writer Jez Butterworth (Michael Wilmington, the Chicago Tribune). About a repressed British bank teller (Ben Chaplin) who orders a kinky Russian bride (Kidman) online, "this breathless demi-noir has so much bounce that we barely get any time to mull over the gaping holes in its moth-eaten plot" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). Chaplin is an adept "follow-the-rules functionary" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). But Kidman wows every (male) critic with a "kinky, kittenish performance" that "turns unexpected emotional corners" (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone) due to the "sharp, almost feral look of a trapped hip cat staring knowingly at the straight world outside" (Wilmington). (Click here for the official Web site.)—A.B.

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Lantana (Lions Gate). Acclaim for this Aussie boomerang of a movie directed by Ray Lawrence and adapted from Andrew Bovell's play. This film uncovers "a web of emotional hope and betrayal" by showing the "lives of strangers joined by unsuspected connections" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times), and critics appreciate its paradoxical nature. By pretending to be a detective story and then refusing that genre's "reassuringly balanced equations,"Lantana expertly navigates "complexity and coherence" while traversing volatile ground: "the ways the most intimate relations engender—and indeed are based upon—secrecy and deceit" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). So, too, for the cast of Anthony LaPaglia, Barbara Hershey, and Geoffrey Rush, who also score for their ability to keep "characters way too nuanced to fall into neat categories like 'victim' or 'victimizer' " (Bob Mondello, NPR). (Click here for the official Web site.)— A.B.

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A Walk To Remember (Warner Bros.). Howling, "Daria, come back!"Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum echoes her colleagues in deriding this first-love drama based on a Nicholas Sparks novel: "Just because [it's] shrewd enough to activate girlish tear ducts doesn't mean it's good enough for our girls." A handful of critics say stars Mandy Moore and Shane West "rise to the challenge their roles demand under the committed direction of Adam Shankman" (Kevin Thomas, the Los Angeles Times). But most side with the concept that "in their zeal to create a character who embodies a wholesome, positive adolescent ideal, the filmmakers have invented an 18-year-old girl with no self-doubt, no emotional weakness, no character flaws, and a crystal-clear complexion: a saint, not a teenager" (Jonathan Perry, the Boston Globe). (Click here to read a chapter from Sparks' best seller.)— A.B.

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The Count of Monte Cristo (Touchstone). Critical conflict on this interpretation of Alexandre Dumas' epic swashbuckler starring Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce. Despite being deemed "stolid, unpretentious, and thoroughly competent" by the New York Times' A.O. Scott, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman calls it "a profoundly, even ponderously square movie." But, alas!, mediates the Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan: Even though the "mediocre production" is "filled with equal amounts of over- and under-acting, dubious morality, soap-operatic plot embellishments, and anachronistic lines," it will still "strike a chord" for "potent satisfaction" consistent with the "zeitgeist" of today's America: "the pleasure of watching a victim take into his own hands the kind of justice usually reserved for a divine power and mete out sweet, sweet payback." (Click here for the official Web site.)— A.B.

The Mothman Prophecies(Screen Gems). Most critics find Mothman somewhat enjoyable but inconsequential. The tale of strange, ­X-Files-style happenings in West Virginia is "a diverting pulp time-waster" (Mark Holcomb, the Village Voice) thanks to director Mark Pellington's ability to create a sense of "free-floating paranoia embellished by the suspicion that nothing is what it seems" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). Unfortunately, Pellington's direction "deserves a better screenplay" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). The script "flounders in its quest for Deeper Meaning" (Holcomb); unable to muster much of a plot, the movie can only "crank up the atmosphere." All in all it's "really just classy trash" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here to read excerpts from the "true" story upon which the movie is based.)—B.M.L.

Slackers (Screen Gems). Terrible reviews for yet another teen movie, this one another gross-out comedy. Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman squanders all goodwill generated by that film as a college nerd hopelessly and weirdly in love with the campus babe (ex-model James King). He blackmails three dudes he caught cheating on a test into helping him woo her, but she ends up falling for one of the cheaters. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, who gave the film a rare zero-star rating, writes, "It made me feel unclean." Slackers "stink[s] like a cat box that hasn't been changed in a hundred years" (Rita Kempley, the Washington Post). (Click here for information on Richard Linklater's acclaimed Slacker [1991], which many critics point out has nothing to do with Slackers and is much, much better.)—B.W.

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Music
Come With Us, by the Chemical Brothers (Virgin). Reviewers say the latest album from this electronic duo, "the populist face of rave culture," (Piotr Orlov, CMJ) is solid if not much of a departure from their previous work. "With each new album, the Chemical Brothers don't reinvent the wheel so much as rotate the tires," says Rolling Stone's Pat Blashill. Thus the new record is full of "kaleidoscopic acid-lines," "guitar (sounding) loops," and "rocked-up dance floor madness" (Orlov). This is enough for some reviewers—"this time the Chemical Brothers have truly earned their reputation as the best in the business," writes Steve Baltin in the Los Angeles Times—but not for others: "[The album] ushers in a hitherto unimaginable concept: a Chemicals album it's possible to feel ambivalent about," writes Dan Cairns in the London Sunday Times. (Click here for their official Web site, which includes a number of audio clips.)— B.M.L.

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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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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.

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.

Ben Wasserstein is an associate editor at New York magazine.