Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 14 2004 11:43 AM

Achilles' Reel

In Troy, Brad Pitt provokes critical drool.

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Troy (Warner). Critics drool all over Brad Pitt's sculpted muscles in this CliffsNotes version of The Iliad. Pitt's "buffed-up, Soloflexed body is already a statue just waiting to be bronzed," sighs the Miami Herald, while Entertainment Weekly calls his oft-displayed buttocks "heroic." Pitt plays Achilles, who storms Troy with a passel of Greeks in order to recover Helen (Diane Kruger). But when he opens his mouth to speak, he sounds more "like a surfer dude trolling the Aegean for the perfect wave" than an ancient Greek warrior, says the Philadelphia Inquirer. Fans of the movie like its exhilarating battle scenes—"when someone dies, you feel the weight and consequence of his fall, and that sense of an oak crashing down is very much in Homer's mournfully celebratory spirit," exults The New Yorker—and refusal to take sides. Detractors think it's empty and overblown: This is "a fairly routine action picture with an advanced case of grandeuritis," says New York. (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Troy).

G-mail. Google's free Web-based e-mail service is in beta testing, and a number of technology critics are ready to convert already. The New York Times raves that Gmail is "one of the most useful Internet services since Google itself" (the one gigabyte of memory it offers for archiving "changes everything"). Web Reports was "truly blown away" (sophisticated message filtering is "the most powerful feature"). And the Philadelphia Inquirer says Gmail "has significantly raised the bar" ("speed" is the "stand-out"). (Of course, everyone has a wish list, too: Extreme Tech's is the most comprehensive.) Critics mostly downplay the privacy issue raised by Gmail's policy on ad placement, which is triggered by words in e-mail. The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg calls it "a little creepy" and worries about potential misuse, but the Washington Post says Web sites "routinely profile their registered users" already, and BusinessWeek failed in its "efforts to trick Gmail into bad taste, say by serving an ad for flowers with a note about a relative's funeral."

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Breakin' All the Rules (Warner). Jamie Foxx probably hasn't been compared to Cary Grant too many times before, but the New York Times claims his "deft touch" and "saucy bounce" in this romantic comedy are just that good. The Times isn't alone, either: Entertainment Weekly agrees that Foxx "rules the screen with his peppy ferocity," and the Los Angeles Times says he and co-star Morris Chestnut *"trade sly one-liners like front-line horn players in an intimate jazz club." Unfortunately, the script is not so smooth. Foxx plays a magazine editor who writes a how-to book on breaking up, setting off a predictable series of romantic entanglements. (The Washington Post details them all, griping, "No movie this stupid should need a plot synopsis this complicated.") The film "not only fails to break the rules, but it follows them to the letter," says TV Guide; it's hard to distinguish "from any number of UPN sitcoms," adds the Onion. (Buy tickets to Breakin' All the Rules.)

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Coffee and Cigarettes (MGM/United Artists). When Jim Jarmusch started this project, "Starbucks was still a small Seattle operation," notes the Los Angeles Times. Twenty years after the first of the movie's 11 vignettes—in which the likes of Iggy Pop, Bill Murray, and Cate Blanchett make small talk over smoke and drink—was shot, Jarmusch has finally collected them into "a feast that plays like a haunting concept album," according to Rolling Stone. "Some of the tracks are stronger than others," says the New York Times, "but the magic lies in the echoes and unexpected harmonies between the selections." Binding everything together are Jarmusch's "sly sense of visual structure" (LA Weekly) and his "playful, hang-dog absurdism" (New York), along with a recurrent theme of "missed connections and fraying ties" (Onion). Still, not everyone is buzzed: The Village Voice yawns at the film's "slow honky-tonk thud-beat, only intermittently punctuated by a joke or idea." (Buy tickets to Coffee and Cigarettes.)

Ray and Maria Stata Center.The Frank Gehry roadshow rumbles on to MIT, where his 420,000-square-foot campus for computer sciences, artificial intelligence, linguistics, and philosophy has just opened. As ever, critics stretch for descriptions—"bulges and tilts and popped-out windows seemingly straight from Dr. Seuss"; "Alice-in-Wonderland balconies and walkways"; "an enormous jungle gym"—but the response is more muted than Gehry has become accustomed to. The Boston Globe covers its bets: Architecture critic Robert Campbell says "everything looks improvised, as if thrown up at the last moment. That's the point." But the Globe's Alex Beam calls the Stata Center "a jumbly pile" and "a complete mess." The Boston Herald agrees that some of the buildings are "more like class clowns than serious thinkers." And the Los Angeles Times complains that Gehry's crumpled façades lack tension when multiplied: The Stata "comes dangerously close to the distracting visual chaos of themed environments, such as Universal CityWalk or the Grove—a kind of mall for the mind."

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Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss (Gotham Books). Americans shouldn't be bound by punctuation rules, say critics of this surprise best seller, which takes humorously exaggerated umbrage at commonplace errors. Books like Truss' "mislead us into thinking that correctness guarantees effectiveness," says the Los Angeles Times, which half-jokingly invokes the First Amendment and contends that American English "remains vibrant and effective precisely because we're skeptical of authorities." The New York Times agrees that if Cormac McCarthy and John Updike "have license to splice commas at will," so should the rest of us. The Times advocates "a more tolerant approach" that asks "not whether the punctuation violates the rules, but whether the meaning is clear." Only USA Today welcomes the trans-Atlantic telling-off, calling Truss a "well-read scold in a culture that could use more scolding." (Buy Eats, Shoots and Leaves.)

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The Little Black Book of Stories, by A.S. Byatt (Knopf). Like "some pursed-lipped librarian or tough English prof" who's "a bit too familiar with darkness, stones, the occult and trolls," A.S. Byatt blends encyclopedic knowledge with Gothic chills in these five short reinventions of the fairy tale. Critics mostly think the alchemy works: The New York Times says Byatt's ability to "raise the hairs on the back of your neck" compensates for her need to display her erudition, which in turn prevents these stories "from dwindling into allegory," according to the San Jose Mercury News. The Washington Post, however, thinks the erudition is a bit much: "You want to say, okay, I get it! We don't make enough use of the language! Our minds are largely dead! Thank you for sharing!" (Buy The Little Black Book of Stories.)

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Sweet Land Stories, by E.L. Doctorow (Random House). In a break from his fragmented, experimental novels, the five stories in E.L. Doctorow's latest short-fiction collection feature relatively straightforward narratives. Reactions are extreme. Michiko Kakutani flogs Doctorow with a strained movie metaphor: These stories "feel more like outlines or movie treatments"; the characters "are standard issue extras"; Doctorow "doesn't even do close-ups, places, chases or explosions particularly well." But the Boston Globe's David Thoreen ponderously praises his "crisp exposition," going so far as to call one "amazing story" "as significant as Melville's 1853 masterpiece," "Bartleby the Scrivener." Who to believe? Other critics lean more toward Thoreen than Kakutani. These stories are "perfectly plotted, full of surprises and a pleasure to read," says the San Jose Mercury News. (Buy Sweet Land Stories.)

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i, the Magnetic Fields (Nonesuch). Stephen Merritt released his triple-disc mainstream breakthrough, 69 Love Songs, and Time welcomes him back with adulation, calling him "the great tragicomic songwriter of his age —equal parts Cole Porter and Charlie Brown." This time out, Merritt "narrows his focus," says Rolling Stone, restricting himself to 14 songs that "mix self-conscious confessions with the light charm of pre-rock pop." But there's still a gimmick: They all start with i. (It stands for "the necessary X-factor of morbidly heartsick solipsism" and "can't-talk-about-anything-else infatuation," muses the Village Voice.) "The overwhelming mood," says the Washington Post, is "one of unabashed romanticism and sunny melodies"—one tune is "sure to be the soundtrack for gay weddings around the country this summer," claims Newsday. But it doesn't sound so fresh to Seattle Weekly, which complains that i "ultimately feels too similar in tone and sound to the last one, like it was a 69 Love Songs Superfun Expansion Pack!" (Buy i.)

Correction, May 14, 2004: This piece originally called one of the stars of Breakin' All the Rules Maurice. The actor's name is Morris Chestnut. Return to the corrected item.

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