Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 2 2003 5:00 PM

The Queen of 'Tweens

Critics wince as Hilary Duff makes like Britney in a sugary film, plus one writer's recipe for revenge.

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X2 (20th Century Fox). A "rock-'em, sock-'em sequel, which moves with the lightning speed, raw power and athletic grace of, well, a genetically mutated superhero," writes the Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan. In the Dallas Observer, Gregory Weinkauf calls my plan for the weekend a "paean to emotional liberation disguised as a high-tech action romp," and notes that "the huge-budget endeavor offers a diverting mix of insight and spectacle, human and superhuman." And in the Village Voice, J. Hoberman slaps on this appealing label: "funny, reasonably crazy, and unpretentiously faithful to its source." But in the L.A. Weekly, odd man out Scott Foundas wears his bile-colored glasses, moaning that the mutant-fest is "a cold, unfeeling, soulless film, a movie with dollar signs in its eyes and adamantium coursing through its veins." (Buy tickets to X2.)

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The Lizzie McGuire Movie (Disney). "Britney, look out!" sneers FilmCritic.com's David Levine. The Beacon Journal's George Thomas agrees that this spinoff of 'tween cutie Hilary Duff's TV show is "dreadful" and "laborious," groaning at the prospect of it being "shoved down children's throats across the land via the Disney Channel, Radio Disney and every other kids' media outlet out there." But in the New York Times, Dave Kehr is far more forgiving: "a light romantic comedy that adults will probably find familiar but tolerable, while their age-appropriate offspring will be transported to new heights of cinematic enchantment." And on MSNBC, David Elliott discerns "something between taffy, tapioca and a gold brick smoothly entering the Disney vault." (Buy tickets to The Lizzie McGuire Movie.)

Gypsy. The controversial Sam Mendes production gets a gold-star, high-five, make-investors-weep-with-joy rave in the New York Times. "You can tear down the black crepe, boys," announces Ben Brantley. "Take the hearse back to the garage, and start popping Champagne corks. Momma's pulled it off, after all—big time." As Rose, Bernadette Peters "has created the most complex and compelling portrait of her long career, and she has done this in ways that deviate radically from the Merman blueprint."

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Other critics split. The Washington Post's Peter Marks praises Peters' performance as "a sultrier and sadder Rose than you're likely to have encountered before"; the New York Post's Clive Barnes calls the show "a solid winner"; and USA Today's Elysa Gardner praises it for finding "dark corners even as it glitters." But in Newsday, Linda Winer dissents, calling the production "merely a conventional, ordinary, stolidly professional and routine retelling." And in the Daily News, Howard Kissel sighs that Peters "is too much a kewpie doll to be plausible as the stage mother who, in her sick drive for success, makes her daughter a stripper."

Bad reviews. In Poets and Writers, first-time reviewee Steve Almond confesses that getting critiqued is "the worst, most bruising part of putting a book into the world—with no close second." Then Almond takes sweet revenge, coldly dishing on the folks who panned him. For instance, the Voice Literary Supplement's Taylor Antrim included Almond in a snarky collective review titled "Young, Gifted and Workshopped." When Almond e-mailed him to complain, Antrim backpedaled, " 'Of course you're right. I'm not entirely comfortable with the MFA angle to the piece, though that's unfortunately the hook that grabs an editor at the VLS for a freelance piece.' As in 'Yeah, yeah, MFA—that's zeitgeisty and controversial! Do that!' "

Almond ends his essay with a Believer-ish plea for critics to refrain from stomping all over newcomers: "Please resist the impulse to dole out your next righteous mugging. Find, instead—just this once—a piece of art that you love, that speaks to your heart, and write a review that helps carve out a place in the world for it."

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Crabwalk, by Günter Grass (Harcourt). This "penetrating, scrupulous, imaginative novel" is "important," writes the Los Angeles Times' Thomas McGonigle—who then admits that "important" is usually a critical code word for "boring." Not so in this case, explains McGonigle: Page by page, Grass' deep history is "scintillatingly nerve-wracking." The Seattle Times' Michael Upchurch calls Crabwalk"Grass' most powerful book since 'The Tin Drum.' " In the New York Times, Jeremy Adler says Grass "once again dazzlingly analyzes Germany's past and present, while hinting soberly at its future." Meanwhile, in the Boston Globe, Steve Dowden's praise is undercut by this caveat: "The feeling of being preached at is strong. The irrepressible verve of Grass's storytelling can take only some of the edge off his heavy-handed didacticism." ( Crabwalk.)

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Good Faith, by Jane Smiley (Alfred A. Knopf). "I admire this novel in so many ways I hardly know where to start," raves the Washington Post's giddy Donald Westlake, who calls Smiley "one of our most Dickensian novelists, by which I mean her imagination is prodigious, her observations exact, and the wealth of fascinating people inside her head a national treasure." Other reviewers match his glee: In the New York Times, Paul Gray praises this Faustian tale of '80s real estate greed as "an extremely subtle and nuanced polemic." In the San Jose Mercury News, Charles Matthews marvels that Smiley "never lets her satire turn tinny and shrill, and she portrays even her villains as human beings." And in the Los Angeles Times, Jane Ciabattari writes that "Smiley's range is broad, her technique masterful as she explores the forces that upset the balance in love, in work, in a country's economy, in a region's ecology." Michiko Kakutani takes a more on-the-one-hand/on-the-other perspective, praising the lively first half, but complaining that the book is "never quite sure whether it wants to be a social satire, a middle-age Bildungsroman or a romantic comedy … never managing to weld these elements together into a convincing whole." (Good Faith.)

Literary Infighting. Ranter supreme Neal Pollack is back, this time with a hilarious takedown of James "Once More Into the" Frey—he of the notorious Observer profile. "You wanna fuck with my shit, Frey guy? I don't think so. Because I really don't give a flying anal gland about Danny Eggleston or Jonathan Safran Fuckface or David Foster Walrus. … You think your appetites are bigger than mine, James Frey? You think you're a bigger rock star and a better writer than I am? Well, motherfucker, I challenge you. I want a drink. I want fifty drinks. I want a tub of acid as deep as the moon. I want a tube of glue that tastes like a dumptruck of peyote. I want a boyfriend. I want a boyfriend. I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas, letters and sodas. I want to be the guy with the most cake." (Read Chris Lehmann's Slate review of Frey's A Million Little Pieces.)