Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
July 16 2004 3:08 PM

Me and My Posse

Critics split on HBO's latest, Entourage.

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Entourage (HBO). This self-conscious sendup of Hollywood celebrity posses, produced by Mark Wahlberg and based on his own experience, presents a challenge for critics: Laugh along with the insiderish satire, or condemn it? Laughing hardest is Alessandra Stanley, who thinks Entourage is "beautifully observed and often wickedly funny," with a "certain sweetness" that makes it "Clueless for lads." Condemning most savagely is The New Republic's Lee Siegel, who eviscerates the show for being "smug, self-congratulatory, inbred, and self-perpetuating." The fault line of opinion seems to turn upon critics' level of identification with the hedonistic antics of the entourage. There are those, like Newsweek, who see "a sincerity and sweetness that makes you forget, or at least forgive, their faults." And there are those, like the Boston Globe, who think "a few comeuppances would serve the guys right and save the show from looking as unconsciously sexist as its characters."

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I, Robot (Fox). "Dramatizing the threat of runaway technology seems to demand ever greater technological innovation," A.O. Scott wryly observes of this Isaac Asimov adaptation, in which Will Smith battles an army of rogue robots. And indeed, everybody admires the CGI work of this "anodized titanium streamline baby"—the Chicago Tribune even gets "a technology high" from "hundreds of shimmery robot images." Though the film's man-machine metaphors make it a sitting duck for the "soulless blockbuster" brigade (LA Weekly calls it "the world's most expensive tin man, no oilcan in sight"), a significant bloc of critics enjoy the action—it's a "fabulous mental escape," says the Washington Post. The Dallas Morning News adds that Smith's newly subdued style works to his advantage—"He's discovered the joy of understatement, and his performance is much richer for it," and critics also appreciate the film's interesting racial subtext. Smith's character is "guilty of a technological version of 'profiling,' " says Armond White. (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to I, Robot.)

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The Door in the Floor (Focus). Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger are hauling in raves as an egocentric artist and his emotionally traumatized wife in this adaptation of John Irving's A Widow for One Year, set in the Hamptons. Bridges "offers perhaps the wittiest and richest piece of screen acting by an American man so far this year," enthuses A.O. Scott, while Basinger's "haunted beauty burns in the memory," according to Peter Travers. As Owen Gleiberman evocatively puts it, the film itself has a "mood of summer limbo blanched by marital discord and death," and there are moments that "get Irving's sense of grotesque tragedy and tragic grotesquerie just right," says Premiere. But common criticisms are tastefulness—too much "suffering attractively in well-appointed rooms," complains the Washington Post—and tone. The mood veers between tragedy and farce, and director Tod Williams "doesn't quite know how to stitch it all together," says Keith Phipps in the Onion. (Buy tickets to The Door in the Floor.)

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A Cinderella Story (Warner). The script for this fairy-tale remake set in the San Fernando Valley "seems to have been spewed out by a computer screenwriting program," spits the Miami Herald venomously. "Insert witchy, popular enemy"; "Insert a big high-school game"; finally, "Insert boredom and disgust." "Pity" is the word for critical feelings about Hilary Duff. The "appealing" 16-year-old "appears imprisoned in her own magic kingdom of carefully chaperoned celebrity," laments Entertainment Weekly. She "isn't a bad actress," adds the Dallas Observer, "yet her career is so micro-managed … that it's impossible to tell what she's truly capable of." In the teen-queen wars, everybody stands firmly on the side of Duff's archenemy—as Newsday's Jan Stuart puts it, "A note to the cabal of 15-year-old guys who sent anonymous hate e-mails for my Duff-dissing in past reviews": "Lindsay Lohan rules." (Buy tickets to A Cinderella Story.)

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Imperial Hubris, by Anonymous (Brassey's Inc.). If you've been doubting "whether the Central Intelligence Agency could produce good intelligence, Imperial Hubris clearly demonstrates otherwise," says former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke dryly in the Washington Post. The book, written by a current CIA officer, argues that the U.S. is hated for its Middle East policies, not its way of life, and advocates for a stronger military response. It's "scalding," "fascinating," "prescient," "incendiary," and "maverick" stuff, says the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, who neglects to offer any opinion of the author's conclusions. Others are more skeptical: Salon points out that Anonymous combines the positions of the far left and far right in a "schizophrenic" polemic that feels "like Susan Sontag piloting a B-52." And the Los Angeles Times dismisses the prescriptions of Imperial Hubris as "crackpot realism," saying the book reminds us that "intelligence is too important to be left to the spies." (Imperial Hubris.)

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The Lemon Table, by Julian Barnes (Knopf). The British novelist takes an early run at aging and death (he's still in his 50s) in this thematic collection of short stories. He's rewarded with predictable talk of "growing depth": The Los Angeles Times says, "These new stories are filled with emotional resonance and hard-won wisdom," while the Wall Street Journal praises Barnes for "compassion, verve, shrewd intelligence and a sharp sense of irony that never degenerates into mere cynicism." (Not that Barnes' much-vaunted technique is fading: Thomas Mallon offers a fellow novelist's blow-by-blow appreciation, calling Barnes "a top-flight precisionist.") Cynicism, however, is exactly what naysayers charge Barnes with: The Washington Post's Carolyn See says he condescends to his characters—"a little hauteur goes a very long way"—and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel thinks "You can always tell when a younger man writes about old age. Barnes' stories are obsessed with loss." ( The Lemon Table.)

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The Coma, by Alex Garland; Illustrations by Nicholas Garland (Riverhead). The latest from the author of The Beach is a dreamlike narrative about a man who awakens from a coma to a world in which nothing seems quite right. Some lazy critics throw around comparisons to Kafka, Borges, and Beckett, but otherwise, there's little middle ground. Either you complain that The Coma is "static and unsatisfying as a story and disappointingly slight as a metaphysical meditation" (New York Times), as well as"arid, bland and boring" (Newsday). Or you rave about the way "Garland leads us deeper and deeper into the Escher-like maze of one man's altered consciousness" (Denver Post) and claim that "what the book lacks in plot twists ... it makes up for in atmosphere and tone" (Salon). Everybody likes the "stunning, ominous" woodcut illustrations by Garland's father, though: They reinforce "the sense that the novel is meant to be looked at as much as read," says the Los Angeles Times. (Buy The Coma.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

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