Identity (Columbia). Mixed notices for this mind-game thriller—many rippling with critical condescension. Identity is just "a dressed-up B picture, a hunk of cheese trying to sneak into the gourmet food aisle of the supermarket," sighs A.O. "Stay Out of My Citarella" Scott in the New York Times. In Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum complains: "Even as I could admire the story's twistiness and catalog its influences, I was stuck with a who-cares-who-killed-Roger-Ackroyd problem that dulled my excitement before the pieces fell into place." And in the Dallas Observer, mean Robert Wilonsky brags about some truly bad theater etiquette. "A man sitting behind a colleague and me, laughing ourselves blind, shushed us and insisted, 'This ain't a comedy.' " But in the Chicago Tribune, Michael Wilmington says the "slick, bloody thriller" is also, "to its credit, a genuine whodunit" that springs "a string of surprises on us, twists and shocks that should catch most audiences unawares but manage to make sense afterward." (Buy tickets to Identity.)
The RealCancun (New Line). Bunim-Murray's docu-decadence inspires deep thoughts and body shots. In the New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder huffs that "the need for writers who can create character and excitement remains unthreatened by efforts to dredge drama from dullards by saturating their environment with cameras and microphones." In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman muses that the major appeal of this "camcorder soap opera of packaged hormonal fervor" is the you-are-there fantasy: "That's the true hook of reality entertainment, isn't it? The next nonstar/star could literally be you. If movies as they once were ever do get trumped by 'reality,' let it be said that this is what killed them: not nipples but narcissism." The Washington Post's Teresa Wiltz expels what can only be described as a despairing " Wooooo-hoooo."
And though she's not a critic per se, one of the movie's participants, Roxanne, offers the following rebuttal: "I'd rather be known for this instead of being smart or something. There's a million people who are smart. There's only 16 of us who were in Cancun together." (Buy tickets to The Real Cancun.)
Elitism. Meanwhile, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, classical music critic Sarah Bryan Miller delivers a fiery defense of fancy-pants aestheticism: "If giving a damn makes me an 'elitist,' then so be it." If Duke Ellington were alive today, she writes, he "would be denigrated by rappers who couldn't pick out a simple melody, much less aspire to the harmonic empyrean." Snob-bashers? They're just insecure. "Those who shy away from defending their tastes with anything remotely approaching rigorous intellectual argument, who are secretly afraid that their preferred entertainment is the equivalent of Mr. Ed or Battlestar Galactica, can simply call the better stuff 'elitist' and be done with it."
A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). After that kamikaze Observer profile, one might expect pans for the mouthy Frey's rehab memoir, but instead there's Salon's Louis Bayard calling it "ballsy, bone-deep" and the San Francisco Chronicle's James Sullivan suggesting that the book's impact outweighs its mannerisms. In Newsday, Liza Featherstone writes that "many recovery tales are burdened by AA clichés, while Frey's voice is entirely his own." But in the New York Times, the normally mild-mannered Janet Maslin goes memorably bitchcakes over the book's pretensions; she thinks Frey's work is rife with melodramatic clichés and lists her own parodic 12 steps—the last of which is "Step 12: Publish. Attract a lot of attention." (Read Slate's take here.) (A Million Little Pieces.)
Bay of Souls, by Robert Stone (Houghton Mifflin). Stone garners a few pans full of praise for this philosophical thriller. In the Los Angeles Times, Amy Wilentz labels Stone "one of our great living writers" but calls the second half of Bay of Souls"a parody of a Robert Stone novel." In the Boston Globe, Gail Caldwell thrills for the writer's "austere, authentic dialogue and fearless gaze into modernity's moral burdens" but notes that "too often the most brilliant or promising parts of the story wander into desultory netherlands, or feel unfinished or poorly conceived." Other critics provide unqualified raves. In the Chicago Tribune, Alan Cheuse delights in this "novel of trembling spirits and earthly tortures," while the New York Times' Norman Rush calls it "a highly concentrated work, probably the least violent yet most unnerving of his novels." In the San Diego Union-Tribune, Arthur Salm labels it "a profound and profoundly moving meditation tethered to a runaway train." (Buy Bay of Souls.)
American Life, Madonna (Warner Bros.). As ever, many critics sigh and eye-roll at Madonna's latest. In the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, D. Parvaz gripes, "Hype, hype, hype, anti-war, controversial, introspective, blah, blah. Hey guess what? American Life is just another Madonna CD." The San Francisco Chronicle's Neva Chonin calls it "not a manifesto but a diary, and not an especially interesting one."Newsday's Glenn Gamboa is more measured, liking the themes but mixed on the music. A few do swoon for the album's yogified depths: USA Today's Edna Gunderson hails the material girl's "philosophical striptease act" as a true revelation. In the Boston Globe, Steve Morse praises her songs as "more honest and less pose-driven than ever before."
Meanwhile, in Entertainment Weekly, Ken Tucker splits the difference and suggests that people cut the chick some semiotic slack. "At its best, her new album offers blunt, questing, decisive music at a chaotic time. At its weakest, she sounds like a gal who's grown content with hubby and kids and the hard-earned privilege of hiring the help to keep herself at tip-top tautness. If that's the worst manifestation of the decadence of her American life, I'd say that's pretty admirable, and also no reason to deny that she occasionally ekes good music out of her pampered self-awareness." (American Life.)