Highlights from the week in criticism.
Oct. 8 1998 3:30 AM


Movies Antz (DreamWorks Distribution). Headline punning reaches an all-time high ("Antz in Pantz," etc.) in the coverage of DreamWorks SKG's first computer-animated feature. With the voices of stars (Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sly Stallone, and Gene Hackman, among others) and a plot involving a workers' rebellion within an ant colony, the film is aimed at a sophisticated audience and hits the mark. Allen's performance as the lead ant, Z, "marks the return of Allen the inspired entertainer, in the place of Allen the tortured artist" (Dave Kehr, New York Daily News). The script is said to be witty and smart and to make good use of pop culture references. A few critics disagree, including the Washington Post's Rita Kempley, who cites the film's overt product placement and self-conscious witticisms as reasons to "reach for the Raid."


      What Dreams May Come (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment). Despite gorgeous visual effects, the movie fails to generate emotional impact, delivering "creamy metaphysical slush" instead (Marshall Fine, the Los Angeles Times). The story follows Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), who travels from heaven to the netherworld in an attempt to rescue his damned wife, Annie (Annabella Sciorra), from hell. Critics concede this new take on the myth of Orpheus is an interesting premise, but the film itself consists of two hours of New Age blather about love mixed with visions of heaven as an Impressionist painting. It's "like dropping acid in a Hallmark shop" (Rod Dreher, the New York Post). (Read Mr. Cranky's cantankerous take on the film.) 

     Happiness (Good Machine). "[T]he most controversial film of the year" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Todd Solondz's follow-up to his independent hit Welcome to the Dollhouse won the International Critics' Prize at Cannes but was dropped by Universal, which was alarmed by the film's sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile. What gives this "intricate counterpoint on themes of alienation, loneliness, lust, and love" (David Ansen, Newsweek) its punch is the way Solondz "lulls viewers into a state of identification and, then, calmly, keenly, slams them" (Lynn Hirschberg, the New York Times Magazine). (See a listing of Solondz's awards here.)


       I Married a Communist, by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin). Mixed responses to Roth's latest. Positive reviewers call it "a gripping novel, memorable, its characters hateful and adorable by turns" (Robert Kelly, New York Times Book Review) and praise the "archival, antiquarian" skill with which Roth depicts 1940s and '50s Red-scare America (Walter Kirn, New York). Critics note the similarities between protagonist Ira Ringold (angry Jewish man married to an actress who later publishes a scathing tell-all memoir) and the author, but this is standard operating procedure for Roth. Negative reviewers call the book "wildly uneven" and say it feels "both unfinished and overstuffed" (Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times). James Wood (the New Republic) writes the most vituperative review, condemning the novel for its sentimentality and for the "boring insufferability of its hero," calling it "a melodrama that is both angry and lachrymose." (The Nation's Katha Pollitt and the Observer's Philip Weiss discuss the novel in a recent "Book Club" in Slate.) 


Television The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer (UPN; Mondays, 9 p.m. ET/PT). This historical sitcom is deemed "the most convulsively awful TV series of the decade" (John Carman, the San Francisco Chronicle), in part for its "moronic" and "totally unfunny" jokes (Jack E. White, Time). But what has drawn the most criticism is what African- American organizations cite as the way the show "trivializes the suffering and pain of African-American people during the period of slavery" (Danny Bakewell, the Brotherhood Crusade). The show's main character, Desmond Pfeiffer (Chi McBride), is a British nobleman of Moorish descent who works as President Lincoln's manservant, in an 1860s-style rehash of Benson. Although Pfeiffer is without question the most intelligent character on the show (and even has his own servant, the inbred Nibblet), the stupid cracks about slavery have drawn calls for a boycott and forced UPN to cut some of the more offensive scenes from the pilot. (Cast your vote here on whether the show is worth the controversy.) 



       "Van Gogh's Van Goghs: Masterpieces From the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam" (National Gallery of Art, Washington). The latest art blockbuster breaks records at the National Gallery and has people camping out in line the night before for advance tickets. Even though the show does not include the artist's most famous works, such as Sunflowers, Irises, and Starry Night, the crowds are showing up and snapping up the refrigerator magnets in the gift shop. The show is a loan from the van Gogh Museum while it undergoes renovations. Critics say the works serve as a reminder of why van Gogh now basks in the sunshine of popular worship: His color-saturated impastos manage to be accessible while giving insight into the classic image of tortured genius. ( Read Christopher Benfey's review of the show in Slate.)


Recent "Summary Judgment" columns 




Movie--Urban Legend;

Book--Two Cities, by John Edgar Wideman;

Opera--A Streetcar Named Desire;


Music--Painted From Memory, by Elvis Costello with Burt Bacharach;


Art--"From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art."



Report--The Starr Report;

Book--Bag of Bones, by Stephen King;

Book--Model Behavior, by Jay McInerney;

Book--Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore;

Movie--Rush Hour;

Movie--Permanent Midnight;

Movie--A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries.



Movie--One True Thing;

Movie--Simon Birch;

Movie--Touch of Evil;

Book--Anne Frank, by Melissa Müller;

Music--Mechanical Animals, by Marilyn Manson;

Music--Teatro, by Willie Nelson.


Movie--Without Limits;

Movie--Knock Off;

Movie--Next Stop Wonderland;

Death--Akira Kurosawa;

Book--The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester;

Book--At Home in the World, by Joyce Maynard.