Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 28 2004 2:05 PM

Political Girl

There's not enough sex in Madonna's strident new tour.

Madonna

Madonna: Reinvention Tour. The nature of Madonna's latest reinvention "remained an enigma" on the first night of her new tour, said the San Diego Union Tribune. Maybe that's because she "often found herself shadowboxing with her own past lives," as the New York Times put it, reinterpreting older, more brazen songs from her newfound spiritual perspective. ("She wore so many kooky looks," complained the New York Post, "that she appeared to be having an identity crisis.") Nevertheless, most critics picked up on the strong political theme—she covers "Imagine," wears combat fatigues, and shows video footage of Bush and Saddam—and they didn't like it. "Bring back the sex," demanded the Los Angeles Times. "Do we really need Madonna to become Joan Baez?" asked the New York Daily News. USA Today spotted a different novelty: She's "in fine voice, especially on the vintage tunes, where her silky tone may come as a surprise to fans familiar with the early chirp."

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The Day After Tomorrow (Fox). This eco-disaster movie is "the Weather Channel on steroids," says the Washington Post. Critics mostly love the "boggling images" of meteorological mass destruction, but yawn at the clunky race-for-survival plot (Dennis Quaid stars). Director Roland Emmerich should have "jettisoned the script altogether and simply paraded the visual effects with chapter titles such as 'Snow Over New Delhi' and 'The Hollywood Sign Gets Totaled,'" says Newsday. Critics shrug off the science that's made the movie semicontroversial—it "mixes fact, theory and Hollywood hooey," says the Philadelphia Inquirer—and focus on its echoes of Sept. 11. The Los Angeles Times argues that the movie makes it "possible to see the catastrophe as spectacle." And in the New York Observer, Dale Peck says that New Yorkers will be "neither offended nor horrified" by images of tidal waves sweeping Manhattan; "in denial or acceptance," they've "made their peace with life in this city." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to The Day After Tomorrow.)

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Raising Helen (Touchstone). Raising Helen"is the kind of movie you watch on a plane while muttering 'utter crap' under your breath—and then burst into tears," says LA Weekly. Kate Hudson's flighty Manhattan career girl is forced to grow up after her sister dies in a car accident, leaving Hudson to look after three children. Critics wonder what happened to Hudson, who showed promise in Almost Famous: "All halo, no heart," she's "becoming the queen of the forgettable mainstream comedy." The tone of Raising Helen"might be called over-the-top lite," says the Hollywood Reporter: "cheery-through-the-tears, with every complication spelled out and quickly resolved." The movie wants to be heart-warming, but it's "about as nourishing as a watery chicken soup leeched of nutrients," scoffs the New York Times. "A new theme is emerging in chick flicks," warns Entertainment Weekly ominously: "Women can have it all—but they really shouldn't try to." (Buy tickets to Raising Helen.)

Saved! (MGM/United). This satire set in a Christian high school "skewers hypocrisy and absolutism but not faith itself," says Entertainment Weekly. The first half, in which Jena Malone becomes an outcast when she gets pregnant by her gay boyfriend (Chad Faust), draws comparisons to genre favorites like Election. It's "wickedly funny and wonderfully irreverent, yet blessed with a generous spirit," applauds the Wall Street Journal. And the all-star young Hollywood cast wins approval, particularly Macauley Culkin ("his quietly amused sang-froid here could mark the beginnings of a fey comic style," muses the New Yorker). But the tone "veers unsteadily from mockery to preachiness," says the New York Times. Critics are split over what the final message is: EW calls Saved! "A facile pro-life movie," but the Onion says "it pushes a sweet, vague message of tolerance with the same self-righteousness, condescension, and retreat into easy answers of those it attacks." (Buy tickets to Saved!)

Nick Hornby. In a flashback to his days as the rock critic for TheNew Yorker, the archenemy of music writers everywhere popped up on the New York Times op-ed page last week to moan that "contemporary rock music no longer sounds young." (He also set out a middlebrow manifesto T.S. Eliot would have approved of—rock should have "recognizable" "influences that are not only embedded in pop history, but that have been properly digested.") He might as well have waved a red cape over blogland. Hornby's successor at The New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones, denounced him line by line for championing "as conservative a conception of rock as one could imagine." Critic Keith Harris was pithy: "I felt more pity for this sad old man than disgust." And Seattle Weekly music editor Michaelangelo Matos dispatched Hornby with relative mercy (the piece "reveals every one of his worst instincts all in one go"), only to turn on Salon's critic, Thomas Bartlett, with a lengthy and detailed evisceration.

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On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense, by David Brooks (Simon & Schuster). Apparently the recent addition to the New York Times' op-ed page isn't very popular in-house. The Times and its affiliates greet Brooks' latest bit of utopian sociology, which argues that American consumerism has an underlying spiritual impulse, with a barrage of bad reviews. The New York Times Book Review drafted new Los Angeles Times op-ed page editor Michael Kinsley for the friendliest of takedowns: Brooks "does not let the sociology get in the way of the shtick," his thesis is "incomprehensible," and—"J'accuse"—he's actually an anticapitalist French intellectual. In Salon, New York Times Book Review columnist Laura Miller goes a more orthodox route, questioning Brooks' "lack of consistency and intellectual chops" and wondering how he can't see through the false promise of marketing ("I mean, we're going back to Sociology 101, here"). And even the Times-owned Boston Globe gets in on the act, calling Brooks' satire "annoyingly ham-handed." (On Paradise Drive.)

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Eventide, by Kent Haruf (Knopf). As if channeling the spirit of Brooks—or is it Thomas Friedman?—Jonathan Miles claims in the New York Times that, if you like Kent Haruf, you're also "drawn to Pottery Barn furniture." Just like the furniture store, says Miles, this follow-up to the best-selling Plainsong, set one year later in the same poverty-stricken Colorado community, offers "visions of a more durable, hand-hewn past" and emits a "horsey, old-leather scent." There is a certain catalog quality to some of the praise for Eventide: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel admires "a sober, homespun beauty," while the Christian Science Monitor rhapsodizes, "Quotations don't do it justice, anymore than a tuft of prairie grass could convey the grandeur of an open plain." But even those who think it would be "churlish" to take offense at Haruf's spare language and commitment to simple lives can't resist doing so. "This is a fairly sentimental book," admits Time; "It's like a preacher sermonizing on the same text on consecutive Sundays," yawns the Washington Post. (Eventide.)

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Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, by Anne Patchett (HarperCollins). This "portrait of addictive devotion" records the relationship of Bel Canto author Patchett and the novelist Lucy Grealy, who died in 2002, aged 39, after suffering through years of treatment for cancer. Reviewers admire Patchett's honest, straightforward prose, but seem slightly unsettled by the intensity of her friendship with Grealy. Joyce Carol Oates compares Truth and Beauty to Ted Hughes'Birthday Letters to Sylvia Plath "in its way of relentlessly exposing what might be described as flaws in its subject's character," and Newsday calls it "unbearably painful," wondering if Patchett might "have locked it in a drawer for a year or two" longer. The Chicago Sun-Times can't "find satisfying answers" to the question of "why Patchett was always willing to play a supporting part in Grealy's drama." "Explanations are as elusive as love itself," answers the San Francisco Chronicle—and "it is love" that "Patchett eloquently captures in this heartbreaking eulogy." (Truth and Beauty.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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