Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 30 2004 1:36 PM

P. Diddy Takes the Stage

And he's not terrible!

A Raisin in the Sun (Royale Theatre). How was P. Diddy's Broadway debut? "Not the wholesale embarrassment that connoisseurs of schadenfreude were hoping for," the New York Times reports. In fact, the New York Post calls Diddy "pretty damn good," Newsday says he's "better than OK," and—surely a first—his singing "delights" the Financial Times. Still, when measured against normal acting standards, he's "about as persuasive as a Teamster dancing Swan Lake," says the Washington Post. The Chicago Sun-Times agrees that he's unable to convey the "stormy interior life" of a 34-year-old chauffeur who still lives with his mother. Diddy is bolstered by Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad, who "build performances so powerful," says the Village Voice, "that everyone else is swept along with them." And he'd better be grateful, says Peggy Noonan: When Diddy kissed McDonald at curtain call, she "got this look on her face that said, 'Don't gallantly bend to kiss my little cheek when I just carried your sorry ass for three hours.' "

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Mean Girls (Paramount). Written by Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey, this satirical take on the bitchy teen genre is "basically Heathers for a new generation," says the Miami Herald. Set in a Chicago high school, Mean Girls stars Lindsay Lohan as a new girl who's quickly embraced by the ruling clique. Although not quite as biting as Heathers—it "manages to rail against stereotypes while still trafficking in them," says the Chicago Tribune—the film still has enough smarts to go to the top of the critics' class. The Village Voice thinks the script nails "the servile malice of 15-year-old girls" and "the voodoo art of sparkly-eyed mindfuck." And the Onion thinks Mean Girls avoids "the herd mentality of other PG-13 teen disposables," calling it "confident enough to think for itself and still fit in with its peers." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Mean Girls.)

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Envy (DreamWorks). "Calling Envy a real stinker seems appropriate," says the Dallas Morning News. "It's probably the first comedy to revolve around canine feces." After Jack Black gets rich by inventing the Vapoorizer, an unlikely product that makes dog droppings vanish into thin air, his old friend Ben Stiller is consumed with jealousy. The premise "offers ripe possibilities for a sharp satire of upward mobility in our consumer society," the New York Times muses, with an apparently straight face. Others just want to make bad jokes. "Everybody's trying very hard to make this stuff gel," says Newsday, but "when something does stick, you just want to wash it off"; the Chicago Tribune wishes it "could spray something at the screen to make it disappear."Entertainment Weekly, citing director Barry Levinson's string of "colossal comedy dud[s]," wonders: "Is the once-great director of Diner and Rain Man slowly falling apart?" (Buy tickets to Envy.)

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Godsend (Lions Gate). This topical horror movie involves two parents who, grief-stricken over the death of their son Adam, accept a mysterious doctor's offer to re-create him as a clone. Unfortunately, the son "isn't the only product of a test tube's worth of secondhand DNA and far too little imagination," cracks the Washington Post. There's also the script, which Entertainment Weekly calls "the umpteenth recycled shocker about a mystical dark child with an aura of disaster." Comparisons to The Omen abound, but there's a problem: As Adam, Cameron Bright "is about as menacing as Dakota Fanning on a shopping spree at Toys 'R' Us," complains the Miami Herald. That leaves Robert De Niro to provide the only performance of note. De Niro has taken his "expert career slumming to a new depth," sighs LA Weekly. "He's become an evil clone of a once-great actor." (Buy tickets to Godsend.)

Minimalism. Two big retrospectives—"Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated): Art From 1951 to the Present" at the Guggenheim and "A Minimal Future?Art as Object 1958-1968" at the Los Angeles MoCA—give critics the opportunity to meditate on minimalism. First, everyone blisses out: The San Diego Union-Tribune says the art is "simply great to look at," L.A. Weekly gets a "contact high," and the New York Times experiences "a serene and exalted eloquence." Then they note the influence of minimalism on airports, malls, music, literature, and, inevitably, the iPod, which features a display that looks "just like a Flavin fluorescent work." In fact, the impact is so undeniable that TheNew Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl, who came to the shows hoping "to announce that minimalism is at last firmly historical," winds up declaring that "we may never get past minimalism." (L.A. Weekly, on the other hand, still thinks it's just "a historical blip.") The LosAngeles Times is with Schjeldahl: The movement's roots in "pragmatism, which finds the meaning of a concept in the effects produced," make it "as American as apple pie."

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Happy Baby, by Stephen Elliott (MacAdam/Cage Publishing). "Surely the most intelligent and beautiful book ever written about juvenile detention centers, sadomasochism and drugs," the New York Times burbles. This autobiographical fourth novel chronicles the effects of childhood sexual abuse, trendy reverse-flashback style. Calling Happy Baby more an "ambitious and carefully constructed literary novel" than a "gut-spilling memoir,"Salon hails Elliott as "the latest exponent of what might be called the junkie-confessional mode of American literature." (The San Francisco Chronicle, however, thinks his "flat voice" is more like "a zombied-out Joe Friday": "[ T]here's no purple prose, and no decadent chic.") By telling the story backward, he "isn't simply playing pomo tricks for meta-mavens," says the Village Voice archly; the strategy puts us into the "position of wanting to know/dreading the knowledge" of the main character's horrific past. (Buy Happy Baby.)

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Kings of Infinite Space, by James Hynes (St. Martin's Press). Previously known for academic satire, Hynes branches out into office life with this story of a former English professor working a lowly temp job. "His enthusiastic skewering of petty bureaucrats is a hoot," says Texas Monthly, but the novel quickly veers into science fiction territory, mixing in "supernatural horror so that it becomes difficult to distinguish the real and imaginary absurdities," according to the Denver Post. (The book is based on Hynes' own experiences as a temp, which included having visions of his co-workers as spectral wraiths.) The result is "a fast, funny ride through pretty peculiar territory," says the Washington Post, which calls Kings of Infinite Space"[H.G.] Wells updated for the 21st century." The New York Times agrees about Wells but thinks the book is "at once too ambitious and not ambitious enough," failing to take the questions it raises about male privilege "seriously enough to satisfy." Maybe so, admits Time, but still, "the glee with which Hynes choreographs an in-office zombie-vs.-stapler fight scene is compensation enough." (Buy Kings of Infinite Space.)

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Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow (Penguin). Up until now, the Founding Fathers revival had passed Alexander Hamilton by. Yet his life—marked by "prescient" preoccupations—"screams out for reinterpretation, far more than that of any of his colleagues," says the San Francisco Chronicle. Hamilton, well-known as the father of modern commerce, also saw our world as one "of nation-building … globalization, outsourcing and war," echoes Richard Brookhiser in the Los Angeles Times. But while Hamilton does come off as something of "a mythic figure," says Newsday, Chernow offers "a psychological portrait" that doesn't stint on his all-too-human qualities ("compassionate and bull-headed, brilliant, impatient, libidinous"). He's also happy to disparage Thomas Jefferson, according to the New York Times' David Brooks: This "devastating destruction job" will "stir up another round of the Hamilton-versus-Jefferson controversy that has been churning for the past two and a third centuries." (Buy Alexander Hamilton.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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