Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
April 23 2004 5:04 PM

What Friends Meant

The bloviation begins.

Friends (NBC). As the grand finale approaches, critics turn dutifully to the question of What Friends Meant. In the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano covers all bases with no less than six theories, ranging from the familiar— Friends as surrogate family ("oddly prone to incest, but still")—to the more adventurous: Friends as "formal exercise in hypnotism by celebrity." (The show became "a self-conscious star parade that was consistently reinforcing its own status as a cultural phenomenon.") Time's James Poniewozik also picks up on the alternative family theme, arguing that the show's innocuousness masked plot lines that should have "set off conniptions in the people now exercised over gay marriage and Janet Jackson's nipple." From the business angle, the Christian Science Monitor thinks Friends' success paradoxically set off the current sitcom slump: "Dozens of wan copycats" turned audiences off, and giant salaries led to "wage inflation." (the Friends finale DVD.)

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13 Going on 30 (Columbia/Sony). "Move over, Julia Roberts," advises Entertainment Weekly. 13 Going on 30 convinces everyone that Alias actress Jennifer Garner has big-screen moxie: The Philadelphia Inquirer says this is "an irresistible, star-making performance" while the Los Angeles Times admires Garner's "hard-body muscles and soft-serve charm," calling her "a terminator and cupcake both." As for the movie, in which Garner plays a geeky teen magically transformed into a chic magazine editor, it "plays like it was made by people who are 30 going on 13," says the Chicago Tribune. The similarities to Big bug the New York Times: This "often feels like prechewed Bubble Yum," says Elvis Mitchell. But the Village Voice channels its inner child to reveal that "the thirtysomething in me was all, gag me with a spoon, but the kid in me was like, this movie's rad to the max." (Buy tickets to 13 Going on 30.)

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Man on Fire (Fox). "Vengeance is everywhere," notes the Philadelphia Inquirer somberly. The latest in a recent string of payback movies stars Denzel Washington as a mercenary in search of a kidnapped girl (Dakota Fanning). After a character-driven first half, the film "descends into hysteria, and the violence becomes relentless," complains the Chicago Tribune. (Washington cuts off one villain's fingers and rams "a bomb-suppository" into the "nether regions" of another.) Some critics give in to their worst impulses: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer says Man on Fire"works as an irresistible 9/11 revenge fantasy" while the Washington Post muses on its "vicious beauty." But most are repelled. The New York Times abhors the combination of "minimal suspense and maximum sadism,"L.A. Weekly recoils from "sheer brutish, over-the-top absurdity," and Salon says "this movie isn't just about a kidnapping; it is a kidnapping, and we're the hostages." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Man on Fire.)

Assassins (Roundabout Theater). "At long last," says Peter Marks in the Washington Post, this Broadway revival reveals Assassins "to be one of Stephen Sondheim's most original, disturbing and exquisitely scored shows." The musical has a checkered history—the characters are U.S. presidential assassins who gather inside a shooting gallery—and it's been delayed or cancelled a number of times. Critics love the score ("With its mix of duets and choral outpourings," "this is America singing, however discordantly," raves the Hartford Courant; "no composer writes a nervous breakdown like Mr. Sondheim," says the New York Times), dismiss the book ("marred by a talky earnestness," yawns the New York Post; "as social commentary," it "still doesn't add up to much," says Newsday), and debate the show's attitude towards assassins. Marks thinks it "bathes its characters in contempt," but the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout complains it tries unsuccessfully to persuade us they're "meaningful symbols of mass alienation."

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Musicology, by Prince (Sony). Apparently critics were only waiting for some old-school funk jams and a couple of award show appearances to jump on the Prince comeback bandwagon. Rolling Stone sighs with relief at an "open, easygoing and inclusive" album full of "distinct, coherent and rigorously uncluttered" songs. "For the first time in a long time," Prince "isn't overdoing it with pointless and obtuse metaphors," echoes New York. Everybody loves the "pan-generational" sound, which nods to OutKast and James Brown alike; this is Prince's "periodic table, a codification of funk's essential elements," says the Philadelphia Inquirer. The surprising kicker: "If there's an overriding theme, it would be respect for marriage," according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The lone dissenter is the New York Times' Kelefa Sanneh, who calls Musicology"a casual exhibition of Princeliness, stocked with a handful of old tricks but no new ones" and bravely sticks up for 2001's "much better," much-derided Rainbow Children. (Musicology.)

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The Confusion, by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow). Neal Stephenson "doesn't write airplane books," says the Oregonian; "he writes week-at-an-isolated-cabin books." The second volume of the Baroque Cycle lives up to its name with 815 pages of 17th-century adventure that, according to Entertainment Weekly, might be "the definitive historical-sci-fi-epic-pirate-comedy-punk love story." Most reviewers are happy to wallow in Stephenson's geekily anachronistic world. (The book "feels composed half on an iBook, half with an ostrich-plume quill," says the New York Times.) The Village Voice counts "at least six" narrative threads and "well over 50" characters, but says "the resulting disorientation feels like an occult spell," while the Seattle Times admires "a dazzlingly orderly display of meaningful intricacy." But some are slightly exhausted by his brainiac effusiveness. (The final volume arrives in October!) The Guardian calls him a "megalomaniac," and the NYT compares The Confusion to "the Nerf-style jousts one sometimes passes on campus quads": "oddly unembarrassed and emphatically not for everyone." (The Confusion).

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Blue Blood, by Edward Conlon (Riverhead). This memoir by an NYPD police officer "may be the best account ever written of life behind the badge," says Time. Conlon—who comes from a family of cops, attended Harvard, and still works as a detective—serves up war stories that grip critics harder than Law & Order. (In fact, the book will be "a bible for future generations of cop show writers," notes the New York Times.) His "terrific" style is "versatile enough to tell ribald street tales, deliver terse one-liners," and "fashion urban elegies," raves the San Francisco Chronicle; he conveys "the otherworldliness of the street" "with anthropological exactitude," praises the Miami Herald. There are some reservations, however: The Baltimore Sun says the book "is too long, and Conlon slips into police-speak too often," and the San Jose Mercury News doubts his objectivity, calling his treatment of the NYPD's general relationship to the city "superficial, tentative," and "apologetic." (Blue Blood.)

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Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore (Knopf). Glossing over the larger historical context of Stalin's regime, this biography uses recently declassified Soviet archives to bring us "a harrowing portrait of life in the dictator's inner circle," says Michiko Kakutani. Montefiore details Stalin's capacity for "affection and tenderness" as well as his pathologies; the contradictory character that emerges is so "three-dimensionally mysterious" that "even Dostoevsky could not have invented" him, claims Time. The Moscow Times, however, perhaps more familiar with Stalin's mysteries, says the idea of a monster with a human face "no longer comes as a surprise," and the Los Angeles Times gripes that Montefiore succumbs to "flippancy and infatuation": He "gushes like a groupie," even calling Stalin a "people person." Other critics think the real revelations are the portraits of Stalin's heretofore anonymous henchmen. "He had the insane help of his own 'Ratpack,' " says John Leonard in Harper's. "What we have here is a social history of hell." (Stalin.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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