Auto Focus (Sony Pictures Classics). "When it was over, I wasn't sure if I needed a drink, a shower or a lifelong vow of chastity," writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times of this "sexaholic Lost Weekend" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice). Critics praise Greg Kinnear's empty-smile performance as Bob Crane, and Rolling Stone's Peter Travers calls director Paul Schrader "a poet of male sexual pathology." But some question Schrader's moralism: "When Kinnear begins his descent, the film spirals with him, starting with an overwrought dream sequence. ... All that's missing is a shot of Jesus shaking his head in shame" (Nathan Rabin, the Onion). (Buy tickets to Auto Focus.)
Abandon (Paramount). Critics mark Katie Holmes' new psychological thriller on the narrow continuum from "competently made, mildly diverting" (Bruce Fretts, Entertainment Weekly) to "all buildup and no payoff" (Kevin Thomas, the Los Angeles Times). (One exception: the Chicago Tribune's Mark Caro, who finds it smart and subtle.) (Buy tickets to Abandon.)
The Ring (DreamWorks). This "very elegantly crafted piece of gothic snuff hokum" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly) garners several raves—in the Chicago Tribune, Robert K. Elder calls it a "pulse-pounding, white-knuckle chiller"—and a few dissenters, like the Washington Post's Desson Howe. Since critics usually pan horror flicks out of hand, that means it's outstanding. In the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan plumbs for deeper meaning, noting that the film's "shrewd premise is fueled not only by the omnipresence of video copies that turn up in our lives from who knows where, but also by a particularly modern feeling of powerlessness." (Buy tickets to The Ring.)
Madonna Watch. Swept Away has been so viciously panned, Madonna's publicist slapped back. "It's a public hanging by the critics, an assassination," complained Liz Rosenberg. "Give the girl a break already! Stop being so mean!"
July, July, by Tim O'Brien (Houghton Mifflin). A "crashingly trite premise" with "capital C characters" leaves David Gates in the New York Times fuming at this college reunion novel's baby boomer clichés. Other critics are friendlier to O'Brien's new effort, but most agree that the book falls short. "Every writer, like every human being, has, as the saying goes, only so many arrows in his quiver. O'Brien, it seems, can't do domestic melodrama —or, perhaps more accurately, can't raise it above the level of soap opera," writes Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post.
The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker (Viking). A "clear, well argued, fair, learned, tough, witty, humane, stimulating" defense of evolutionary psychology, writes Colin McGinn in the Washington Post. Robin McKie in the Guardian disagrees, calling Pinker's politics "breathtaking, rabid stuff" and complaining about his tendency to "[snatch] at studies that are supposed to support his thesis, without any accompanying explanation or elucidation." In the New York Times, Robert J. Richards suggests that the MIT scientist's gripes against his opponents give his otherwise lively prose a "bitter aftertaste." (Pinker is discussing theories of happiness in a Slate"Dialogue."The Blank Slate.)
In the Hand of Dante, by Nick Tosches (Little, Brown). "The Name of the Rose meets The Sopranos, scripted by Kathy Acker and starring Dennis Hopper," raves Joy Press in the Village Voice. Press calls Tosches "a Big Bang kind of guy" who would "clearly much rather produce a magnificent mess than a small but perfectly formed success."Entertainment Weekly's Troy Patterson cheers for the tough-guy rock critic's "metafictional horseplay... executed with steadfast suavity." There's one grouchy dissenter: the Washington Post's Glenn Kenny, who finds Tosches "so self-important about his outrageousness that he sounds like Bill O'Reilly channeling Lenny Bruce."
"Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting" (National Gallery of Art, Washington). "It's a blast and should be a hit," enthuses the New York Times' Holland Cotter. The spookily hilarious visual tricks allow your perceptions to be "gently tickled; you see art do a magical thing." In the Washington Post, Blake Gopnik finds the show's subject matter fascinating but laments that the curating is off: "Many of the objects in the exhibition seem to have been chosen simply because they share subject matter with their trompe l'oeil cousins, even when they are constructed according to a different, much more standard set of rules."