The critics' take on About a Boy, etc.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 14 2002 3:30 PM

About a Cad

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Movies About a Boy (Universal). This latest adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel, about a slick commitment-phobe who grows up befriending a fatherless schoolboy, receives respect and inspires critics—once again—to call Hugh Grant a "cad." Yet here that's complimentary: "[G]rant has grown up, holding on to his lightness and witty cynicism" and, by losing his "stuttering sherry-club mannerisms," has "blossomed into the rare actor who can play a silver-tongued sleaze with a hidden inner decency" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). So much so, in fact, that the movie's convincing: "You succumb to [its] warmth and bonhomie"; "the alternative" is "the isolating, self-protective cynicism from which Will (Grant) has been lucky to escape" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). (Click here to read the opening of the novel.)— A.B.

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The Salton Sea (Warner Bros.). Bum reviews for this "nasty variation of the one-last-score genre" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times), directed by newcomer D.J. Caruso and starring Val Kilmer and Vincent D'Onofrio. The premise: "Trauma produces a personality split, where a shadow persona [in this case, a crystal-meth-addicted police informant] solves problems the other half can't" (Richard K. Elder, the Chicago Tribune). Critics call it "[e]ccentric enough to stave off doldrums" yet "self-conscious" and "eminently forgettable" (Michael Atkinson, the Village Voice). The main critique: It "blatantly recycles moods and images from other recent films [Heat, Pulp Fiction, Requiem for a Dream, Fight Club] and compacts them into a formula of its own" (Holden). (Click here for the official Web site.)—A.B.

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Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (Fox). Dreadful early reviews for the most anticipated movie of the year. The New York Times' A.O. Scott calls the film "a chance for gifted actors to be handsomely paid for delivering the worst line readings of their careers … it is not really much of a movie at all, if by movie you mean a work of visual storytelling about the dramatic actions of a group of interesting characters." The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, a defender of Episode I, says the special effects "didn't pop out and smack me with delight, the way they did in earlier films. There was a certain fuzziness, an indistinctness that seemed to undermine their potential power." How about the two romantic leads, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen? Scott: They're "timid and stiff, and uncertain of their diction. They alternate between the august tones of high-school Shakespeareans and the suburban soap-opera naturalism of Dawson's Creek." Ebert: "There is not a romantic word they exchange that has not long since been reduced to cliché." (For a rare positive notice, try Harry Knowles'review over on Ain't It Cool News.)—B.C.

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Books
The Bondwoman's Narrative, by Hannah Crafts, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Warner). Good reviews for this much-hyped fictional find. Billed as the first novel published by both an ex-slave and a black woman, some critics say it "need not be read for its historical importance alone: It is an immensely entertaining and illuminating novel that transcends" the Gothic and sentimental genres "to address the complexities of the slave experience" (Mia Bay, the New York Times). Gates' introduction is "downright fascinating: a cross between Antiques Roadshow and CSI" (Lisa Levy, Entertainment Weekly). And even those who disagree, crying "jaggedly episodic" and "syrupy," call it a "strong social critique" that proves more than a few slaves were, in fact, quite literate (Matt Weiland, Newsday). (Click here for an excerpt. Buy.)— A.B.

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The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, by Max Boot (Basic). Strong (conservative) notices for this treatise by the Wall Street Journal's op-ed editor. "Boot is an exceptional writer" (Mackubin Thomas Owens, the National Review) whose prose reveals "that the positive aspects of modernization would have been much slower to arrive had America failed to step in and permitted other 'colonizing' states freely to work their will" (Frederick W. Kagan, Commentary). And even though the book "will seem to a few unapologetically imperialistic, far more readers will rightly see that its message [to invalidate the Powell Doctrine] is instead a moral one—and never more timely than now" (Victor Davis Hanson, the Weekly Standard). (Click here to read Boot discuss his book with James Gibney on Slate. Buy.)— A.B. The Nanny Diaries, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (St. Martin's). Cheers for this "seamless, witty, detail-rich story that perfectly captures the strange and pampered life of New York's elite as they skillfully evade raising their own offspring" (Dierdre Donahue, USA Today). Critics call the book's "composite heroine [actually named Nanny] a vastly entertaining narrator and impromptu social critic" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times). "She's Mary Poppins channeling Dorothy Parker" (Belinda Luscombe, Time). Yet one main critique is formidable: While the book may "provoke cackles of schadenfreude among the Upper East Side private school crowd, outsiders are more likely be struck by the sadness of it all" (Judith Warner, the Washington Post). (Click here to read an excerpt. Buy.)— 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.

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter.

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