Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Nov. 5 2004 1:49 PM

Metrosexual and the City

Critics debate how well Jude Law does Alfie.

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Alfie (Paramount). This remake of the swinging '60s classic about an incorrigible womanizer is "cotton candy spun from decades-old arsenic," says the Dallas Observer. Jude Law gives Alfie, originally played by Michael Caine, "a metrosexual makeover," and the film stands or falls on his allure. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers is seduced by "charm, wit and enough sizzle to melt cold steel"; the Chicago Tribune calls this "one of the best exploitations so far of his edgy, cheeky, snake-like matinee seductiveness." The knock, though, is that the remake softens Alfie's dark side. In the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano complains that Alfie's little more than "a male Carrie Bradshaw," and Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman says more "anger … might ignite [Law's] smooth presence." As for contemporary relevance, Manohla Dargis claims Alfie"nails the Maxim magazine mindset." The Philadelphia Inquirer, however, finds the film "anachronistic," saying Austin Powers might have been a more appropriate star. (Buy tickets to Alfie.)

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The Incredibles (Disney). The Pixar juggernaut continues with this film about a retired family of superheroes back in action for one last mission. Let the superlatives rain down! "[D]azzlingly beautiful, funny, and meaningful," applauds Lisa Schwarzbaum; "James Bond, Indiana Jones and the X-Men all rolled into one kick-out-the-jams spectacle," raves Peter Travers; "Bring on the action figures and DVD-plus-extras! I'm so there," hyperventilates Ken Tucker. But it's not just action and laughs; The Incredibles is "ethically serious," too, marvels A.O. Scott—"it is, at its heart, a story of mid-life frustration and compromise." Or is it an Ayn Randian fable about the triumph of individualism? That's "subversive subject matter for a family film," says the Miami Herald—"a complete reversal of the traditional formula in which a social outcast is eventually accepted into the fold." The only reservation is the PG-rated violence. "[I]f a movie's going to endanger its own kids, it can stay away from mine," growls Newsweek. (Read David Edelstein's review in Slate.) (Buy tickets to The Incredibles.)

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It's All About Love (Focus Features). Dogme alumnus Thomas Vinterberg is "flipping the bird to austerity" with this bizarre futurist romance starring Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, and Sean Penn, says Entertainment Weekly. Set in a world where the environment has gone haywire and ice-skating is the pre-eminent form of entertainment, the film finds an unlikely pair of defenders in the Village Voice and New York Post. The Voice admits it's "a colossal folly" but calls it "a film maudit for the ages —rapturous and inexplicable in equal measure;" the Post thinks "dazzling set pieces" and "a pleasingly off-key ambience" compensate for a chaotic plot. Others are less forgiving: Variety can't get over "significant deficiencies on the basic level of storytelling," and Manohla Dargis complains about "leaden whimsy" and "unpersuasive stabs at swooning romanticism."LA Weekly just wants to know, "[ W]hat's Sean Penn doing dangling off airplanes — pontificating, as usual, from a great height?" (Buy tickets to It's All About Love.)

Huff (Showtime). Poor Showtime. There are a host of reasons to like the premium cable channel's new series about an L.A. shrink suffering a midlife crisis: It "gives you big, often universal themes," as well as "the small, telling gestures of daily life," says Paul Brownfield in the Los Angeles Times.  Entertainment Weekly finds star Hank Azaria "impressively subtle," and New York's John Leonard enjoys the setting—"Joan Didion's mall culture of migraines, Mansons, and bloody butter on a crust of dread." But while that's high praise compared to most TV, Showtime is still compared to HBO. And in that competition, sighs Alessandra Stanley, it's "Salieri to Mozart, or Hunt's ketchup to Heinz." In sum, Huff is "enjoyable without being vital." Everyone has a theory about what's missing: The Boston Globe's Matthew Gilbert complains that the show turns patients into "overdramatic caricatures," Brownfield thinks it's lacking "a sense of place," and EW sees too many "preening please-discuss-by-the-water-cooler moment[s]."

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I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). Wolfe's fiction has always been animated by a "psychodrama of authorial ambition," says the New York Sun, and in his third novel, which deals with an innocent young freshman's induction into debauched college sexuality, his ability to create "a genuinely independent character is on the line." Is Wolfe's first female lead credible? Yes, says Charles McGrath (after painful paragraphs of mimicry—"Southampton! Summer watering hole of celebs!"), Charlotte is Wolfe's "most self-revealing and autobiographical character." Her travails give the book "an unexpectedly tender heart," adds Lev Grossman. No, says the Los Angeles Times: She's "just grist for the mill."Newsweek concurs that she "lacks that mysterious core," and the Sun says she represents "a gaping failure of sociological realism." Everyone agrees that Wolfe's lost a reportorial step or two. As Michiko Kakutani puts it, his observations about campus life are "overly familiar" and "peculiarly dated." ( I Am Charlotte Simmons.)

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His Excellency: George Washington, by Joseph J. Ellis (Dimension). The big presidential bio of the season "overcomes the general's aloofness and saintly status to get at the inner control freak and tortured moralist," says Business Week. Consensus opinion, as summarized by the Baltimore Sun, is that His Excellency is "an elegant work, even though it contains no great revelations." The New York Times adds, Ellis "gives us a visceral understanding of the era." There's some quibbling about his relatively dark reading of Washington's psychology, however. The New York Observer finds it "far more human and approachable" than the legend, and Newsday loves the "magnificent, flawed humanity." But Business Week criticizes Ellis when he "dons his shrink's hat and starts speculating," and the Boston Globe says the "not entirely convincing" portrait "minimizes the importance of idealism in Washington's career" and presents "the most negative interpretation" of his generalship since the 1930s. (Read Slate'sreview of His Excellency: George Washington.) ( His Excellency.)

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Half-Life 2 (Vivendi Universal) and Grand Theft-Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar Games). The Christian Science Monitor's recent claim has become de rigueur in the last few years: Video games are as powerful as movies, but people don't take them seriously, and "it's time to acknowledge a cultural change at work." Better criticism would be a good start. Game critics get more space than any others, but waste it on tedious technical descriptions and breathless praise. Case in point: The early, unadulterated raves for two long-awaited sequels, Half-Life 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. PC Gamer's Half-Life 2 review is comically hyperbolic, calling the game "a magnificent, dramatic experience" filled with "genuinely mind-boggling beauty." The capper: "I could talk about how those battles with the striders almost made me cry." Some Grand Theft Auto reviews come close to matching that: IGN dubs it "a terrific unending masterpiece of a game" and Game Spy says that "this is why we play games": "to be liberated from the constraints of reality and explore living, breathing worlds." ( Half-Life 2 and Grand Theft-Auto: San Andreas.)

Ashlee Simpson

Ashlee Simpson. In the wake of Simpson's Saturday Night Live lip-synching debacle, critics rush to her defense. The Washington Post and the Globe & Mail argue that everybody does it, while Salon points the finger at Simpson's manager/father: "It's the puppet master holding her strings who really deserves to be strung up." Meanwhile, the New York Times' Kelefa Sanneh uses the gaffe as an excuse to attack "rockism." According to Sanneh, "A rockist is someone who reduces rock 'n' roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon." For instance, "[W]hen did we all agree that Nirvana's neo-punk was more respectable than Ms. Carey's neo-disco?" Sanneh concludes that we "deserve some new prejudices," but the new orthodoxy may already be here. After all, now that he's linked arms with the New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones, who defended Justin Timberlake against rockist dismissal for Slate, the forces of anti-rockism occupy two of the country's most prominent music criticism platforms.

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