War Writing. Neal Pollack throws a hilariously cathartic tantrum in the Stranger and pans all writing on the war—slagging in his wake Hendrik Hertzberg, Anne Lamott, Christopher Hitchens, and the Poets Against the War: "Shut up, antiwar people. Shut up, pro-war people. Shut down your computers and shut your goddamn pieholes. … Why, if you didn't know better, you'd almost think that thousands of poets were taking advantage of a political crisis to further their careers!" This publication comes in for its share of scorn: "Is Donald Rumsfeld feeling more secure now that Slate is on board?" Pollack asks. Only two items escape his wrath: the Onion's special issue immediately following Sept. 11, and William Langewiesche's book about reclaiming Ground Zero.
The Life of David Gale (Universal). Pans of this "brazenly ridiculous death-penalty drama" scorn the film's plot as an "overheating gotcha machine"—a "crude, bullying narrative [peppering] the audience with kidney punches." In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman suggests audiences have become too jaded for such manipulation: "In a reality-based infotainment culture, where even the most pivotal news events are hyped into a kind of nightly hot-button theater, it can seem cornier and more false than ever to stuff a meaty political issue into the sausage casing of Hollywood melodrama." (Buy tickets to The Life of David Gale.)
Old School (DreamWorks). Most reviewers admit (grudgingly or openly) that this "sloppy, slaphappy" sex farce is "funny in a blunt, profane frat boy way." Since boys-gone-wild comedies are usually just eviscerated, that might mean it's decent. Still, the Los Angeles Times' Manohla Dargis notes that enjoyment hinges on whether "you find the sight of Will Ferrell running down a street in nothing more than black socks and shoes uproariously funny, inexplicably tragic or a little of both." (Buy tickets to Old School.)
Dark Blue (MGM). A hung jury for this cop drama: A.O. Scott yawns at its "baroque busyness" while the New York Observer's Andrew Sarris cheers its "taboo-shattering ferocity." The Onion's Scott Tobias admires "a combustible energy that's usually anathema to Hollywood;"The New Yorker's Anthony Lane sneers that it should be renamed "L.A. Confessional." But reviewers universally applaud—with bona-fide, Oscar-baiting sincerity—"the best performance of Kurt Russell's career." (Read David Edelstein's review of Dark Blue for Slate.) (Buy tickets to Dark Blue.)
Pans. In the Washington Post, Gene Weingarten phones Robert Burrows, the author of a self-published novel, and informs him that if Burrows is willing to submit to an interview, Weingarten will review his book. " 'The only catch,' I said, 'is that I am going to say that it is, in my professional judgment, the worst novel ever published in the English language.' Silence. 'My review will reach 2 million people,' I said. 'Okay,' he said."
The resulting deadpan exchange includes moments like this: "Weingarten: My question is, have you ever heard real human beings speak? Burrows: This is the way I speak. In my circle, I am regarded as a fascinating conversationalist. I have a dinner group that has been meeting for maybe 30 years."
Isn't It Romantic?: An Entertainment, by Ron Hansen (HarperCollins). A high-lit author takes a detour into screwball romance, and critics either grin or gag. The Washington Post's Lori Leibovich finds this fable "hokey and stale," while the New York Times' Janet Maslin praises it as "unexpectedly airy." The San Francisco Chronicle's Heller McAlpin deems it "laugh-out-loud funny"; USA Today's Anne Stephenson, "not even remotely hilarious." The Charlotte Observer's Polly Paddock admires "a sweetly likable ending"; Michael Downing calls it a Hollywood gimmick (although he is charmed by "some genuinely droll ripostes"). In Book Page, Sarah Goodrum writes, "For those who would sample this sweet story and find it too sugary, I say lighten up, pour it over your diner pancakes and dig in." ( Isn't It Romantic?)
Any Human Heart, by William Boyd (Alfred A. Knopf). Critics praise Boyd's faux memoir as a witty historical puzzle-box: His main character may be a snob, but Boyd himself is "multifaceted and inventive, and he plays a deep game under his agile card tricks," says the New York Times' Richard Eder. The Boston Globe's Ann Harleman says Boyd "makes the journal form into something wonderfully plastic and supple," and to the San Francisco Chronicle's Anthony Giardina, this unreliable, Zelig-esque narrative is "more sheer fun than any other book I can recall reading in years." One ferocious pan does call the book's central conceit "a tedious, drawn-out lesson" (David Hiltbrand, the Philadelphia Inquirer). But the Miami Herald's Margaria Fichtner finds it a smart "meditation on identity"—and fills in the origins of Boyd's central character: He was part of a clever hoax Boyd played on the art world a few years back. (Any Human Heart.)
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (Scribner). This "mesmerizing, beautifully understated" portrait of poverty in the South Bronx gets raves everywhere. In USA Today, Stephen J. Lyons calls it "a seminal work of journalism, a brand of deep reporting rarely attempted anymore." In Newsday, Liza Featherstone writes that LeBlanc's empathic portrayal "never veers into polemic, but her observations are firmly rooted in an understanding of a greater social context." And in the New York Times, Margaret Talbot suggests that for a wannabe do-gooder, the author's close-up insight is brilliant but almost too much to take: "In truth, you wouldn't want every book about poverty to be like LeBlanc's. … Some books have to be fueled by a kind of willed optimism, even if that means turning your eyes away from some of the details." (Random Family.)
"Matisse Picasso" (Museum of Modern Art). Ignore snippy Euro criticism from the earlier legs of this tour, advises the New York Times' Michael Kimmelman, and just go see this "tendentious, eye-educating, sometimes revelatory and usefully debatable event, whose parade of pairings and groupings of pictures by the two painters is a spectacle of institutional muscle only the Modern could manage." Newsday's Ariella Budick thrills at the show's fresh insight into the pair's "cutthroat game of artistic leapfrog"; the Village Voice's Jerry Saltz calls it "the aesthetic equivalent of pig heaven."