Doodad Kind of Town

"A Serious Man" and "The Invention of Lying"
October 25, 2009, 8:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

For the second time this year, I’ve turned to a friend during the closing credits of a film and said “I’ve got to see this again in order to get my mind around it.”

The first time I said this was just after the closing scene of “Inglorious Basterds,”and the repeat viewing felt necessary in order to determine whether it was truly great or just overrated fanboy crap. The jury’s still out here on “Basterds;” that second viewing has yet to take place.

With the Coen Brother’s “A Serious Man,” however, I suspect the repeat viewing may take place as soon as next weekend, so anxious am I to revisit its pleasures and puzzle out the density of its layers of meaning.

If indeed there is anything there to puzzle out.

“A Serious Man,” while in many ways a radical departure and an uncharacteristically personal work for the Coens, is of a piece with the nihilistic tomfoolery in their most recent outing “Burn After Reading.” And it resoundingly reaffirms that film’s closing line: “What have we learned from this? Not a thing.” It’s many things all at once – a take-off on the Book of Job; an unsettling, absurdist meditation on human suffering and the limited efficacy of religion to help us make sense of it; and a meticulously detailed remembrance of growing up Jewish in the suburban Midwest of the 1960s. Ultimately it’s the kind of film in which the words to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” prove to contain more wisdom than those of three revered rabbis put together. But its final shot is every bit as ambiguously ominous as the conclusion of “No Country for Old Men.”

It opens in a Polish shtetl where a couple is visited by what may be either a kindly, elderly neighbor, or a dybbuk (demon) – if it’s the latter, they’ve been cursed by God. We never find out who the visitor really is; all too soon, we’re whisked into the opening credits and then to 1967 Minneapolis where we’re introduced to Lawrence Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). His doctor proclaims him a healthy man, and his college physics class stares glassy-eyed as he enthusiastically fills blackboards with convoluted equations that apparently describe how everything in the world works. When a character is introduced with such an assurance of his well-being and understanding, you can bet he’s in for a spectacular run of bad luck. And the bad stuff starts almost immediately.

First, his wife asks for a divorce so she can marry their widower friend, an unctuous, dulcet-voiced aging hipster named Sy Ableman (the wonderful Fred Melamed). Then his bid for tenure is threatened when an unnamed party begins writing letters to the tenure board describing Gopnik’s “moral turpitude.” The ne’er -do-well bachelor brother (Richard Kind, funny and poignant) who sleeps on his couch lives a secret life that finally and embarrassingly catches up with him. Cars crash. Legal bills mount. Lawrence suffers nightmares, considers taking a bribe from a student who would like a higher grade. He consults rabbis, searching for meaning and solace; in return, he gets an exhortation to find evidence of God in the beauty of the synagogue parking lot and a hilarious, but ultimately meaningless, tale about a plea for help carved into the inside’s of a goy’s teeth. (I can’t do it justice, I can’t. Just trust me.) And all the while, his son Danny is spending his days getting high in the boy’s room at Hebrew school, his daughter is forever trying to get in the bathroom to wash her hair, and the Gentile father-and-son next door glower at him between their vigorous backyard games of catch and hunting trips from which they return with a freshly killed elk strapped to the top of their station wagon.

Stuhlbarg, an acclaimed stage actor, was seemingly born to play stunned, comic incomprehension; he’s the perfect, beleaguered straight man to the coterie of lunatic characters that surround and bedevil him. Among a universally superb supporting cast, the standouts are Kind, Melamed and Amy Landecker (daughter of legendary Chicago DJ John “Records” Landecker, BTW) as the smoldering Mrs. Samsky, the Gopnik’s nude-sunbathing neighbor. And the Coens, as ever, have the greatest gift this side of Fellini for casting memorably funny/grotesque faces in minor roles. except this time, even the funny minor characters feel more authentic, as if they’re people the Coens remembered from their own early lives.

If you don’t already love the Coens, I suspect “A Serious Man” is not going to win you over. Those of us who delight in their particular brand of absurdity will find much here to love and be challenged by. And if you’re old enough to remember the 1960s, you may find nostalgic pleasures here as well. The wood panelled rec room walls, the hi-fis, the pictures on the walls, and the antenna on the roof that must be endlessly fussed with in order to get a clear picture on Channel 4 will all bring on a knowing smile. I’ve seen lots of movies set in the 60s, but can’t recall one that has so recognizably and authentically captured the domestic details of that era. They’re the kind of details that make “A Serious Man” feel so personal and specific and sets it apart from the Coens’ other work, even as its cynical, frequently cartoonish humor unmmistakably brand it as theirs.

In “The Invention of Lying,” a modest yet charming new comedy from British comic Ricky Gervais (he co-wrote and co-directed with Matthew Robinson in addition to starring), we’re transported to a world where human beings “have not evolved the ability to lie.” Actually it’s worse than that – they haven’t evolved the ability to withhold information. So not only does Jennifer Garner blurt out to Gervais at the outset of their blind date how unattractive she finds him, but the waiter at the restaurant greets them both with the revelation that “I’m embarrassed I still work here.” Strangers routinely confess to one another their deepest personal insecurities and miseries, all the while displaying a highly evolved ability to articulate their own emotional complexity. “I’m threatened by you because there are things about you I don’t understand,” Gervais slimy co-worker tells him. “And I don’t like things I can’t understand.”

Gervais plays a sad, schlubby loser who can’t score with his dream girl (Garner) and can’t hold on to his job, but he develops a miraculous talent. He discovers how to “say what isn’t” – to lie – and because he lives in a world where no lie has been told before, everyone believes him. His first trick is to withdraw more money from his bank account than it actually contains (“Our computer must be wrong!” the teller apologizes cheerfully as she hands him a hefty stack of bills), but soon he’s using his newfound ability to soothe the misery of those around him, assuring everyone from his suicidal neighbor (Jonah Hill) to the bickering couple at the coffee shop that everything is going to be ok.

“Invention” takes a particularly sly, subversive turn when Gervais tell his biggest lie. Undone by his dying mother’s fear that she’ll pass into eternal nothingness, Gervais assures her she’s going to a better place where she’ll be reunited with everyone she loves and she’ll have her own mansion. The credulous medical staff at his mother’s bedside are enthralled – soon word has spread that Gervais knows all about the afterlife. A mob appears at his door, and to appease them, Gervais delivers a list of informational tidbits about “the man in the sky” and the afterlife – it rapidly devolves into a fitfully funny Q&A about sin, God, Heaven and Hell. The scene feels as if it were lifted straight from “Life of Brian,” and it’s every bit as funny. Suffice it to say Gervais apparently feels very much the same about religion as does Bill Maher; unlike Maher, however, he’s not an asshole about it.

“Invention” is most satisfying when it pokes gentle fun at the kind of lies we sometimes have to tell ourselves and each other just to get through the day without slitting our wrists. It’s somewhat less successful as a romantic comedy. How is it that Gervais has managed to star in two of the smartest and sweetest rom coms of the past year (“Ghost Town” in addition to this), yet has never once been shown actually kissing the girl? “Invention” is tiresomely full of references to Gervais as a “little fat, snub-nosed” man; Garner dithers endlessly about whether to commit to him because she can’t face the prospect of bearing “little fat, snub-nosed” children. I guess I wouldn’t like Gervais as much if he weren’t so self-deprecating, but, jeez, he needs to give himself a break. Tall and chiseled is nice, Ricky, but smart and funny is a pretty sexy combo, too.

Diary of a Weekend Movie Marathon
October 11, 2009, 7:15 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Saturday, 10/10: Has anyone who’s ever seen Woody Allen’s “Alice” been even remotely shocked by the way it ends? From the first frame, Mia Farrow’s Alice Tate looks so uncomfortable in her big, rambling Upper East Side apartment and matronly sweaters with pearls – her slight frame so overwhelmed by her enormous fur coat – that there’s no doubt she’s going to chuck it all by the time the signature black-and-white credits roll. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the Mia we all know and love showed up in the final scenes, wearing schlumpy jeans and an army fatigue coat, happily heading to her job at the homeless shelter.

I’d seen “Alice” before, years ago; it didn’t improve on the second visit. Allen’s 1990 film feels like a love letter to his then-girlfriend’s benevolent spirit on some levels, but sadly he didn’t write her much of a part. Allen is at a loss when it comes to putting genuine depth behind Alice’s impulses to do good and live a more meaningful life. The character is just one more of the mousy earth-mother types he’s written for Farrow in the past(as in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “New York Stories”). Only much whinier.

By this time, I pretty much know what’s going to happen when I see a new Michael Moore movie. First of all, my friends will be all excited to see it, and we’ll go together in a big, fired-up group. And we’ll be joined by a whole auditorium full of similarly left-leaning moviegoers who will express their solidarity with Moore through hearty laughter , cries of outrage and occasional bursts of applause.

And the film itself? You can expect sequences of cleverly edited commercials, educational films, home movies and news footage – sometimes accompanied by jocular pop tunes, and sometimes by ominous or heart-wrenching music, according to the tone of whatever message Moore hopes to hammer home at that moment. At some point, Moore will show up at a corporate headquarters building to ask for an interview with the CEO; he’ll inevitably be greeted by a phalanx of security guards rushing to shoo him and his camera crew away. And, there will be heartbreaking interviews with ordinary people who have been deeply hurt by government or corporate policy.

My experience of “Capitalism: A Love Story” played out exactly I had anticipated, with one happy exception. There was no WTF moment in this film where I groaned, rolled my eyes and thought “Mike, you’ve gone too far!” (as in the”Why does everyone say Cuba is bad?” section of “Sicko,” or in “Fahrenheit 9/11” when Moore observes that, on the night before the attacks “the president went to sleep on a bed made with fine French linens.” Wanna bet that Michael Moore himself dozed off between some nice, high-thread-count sheets on the night of September 10, 2001?)

Moore still knows how to rile up an audience; he’s more propagandist/entertainer than documentarian, and like all his films, “Capitalism: A Love Story” is tailor-made for an audience of registered Democrats and rancorous Bush bashers. (The man next to me kept blurting out “Monkey Boy!” in an almost Tourette’s-like manner every time W’s face showed up onscreen, and the whole audience broke into sustained applause during a clip of Dennis Kucinich’s impassioned speech to Congress against the federal bailout.) But even so, this time out, Moore’s film is notably less smart-alecky, and more deeply suffused with a sense of his own heartbreak and fatigue. And though his most pointed attacks are directed at Reagan, Bush and bank CEOs, he doesn’t shy away from exposing the roles of Clinton and other Democratic leaders in bringing about the country’s devastating economic conditions.

The film concludes with a scene of Moore putting yellow Crime Scene tape around the headquarters of AIG; in voiceover, he tells us “After 20 years, I’m tired of doing this. Why don’t you help me?” I have to admit, having seen what Moore had to show me about the death of the once-great American dream, I was more than ready to pitch in.

Sunday, 10/11: I love Fellini, but after seeing “La Strada” for the first time, I had the distinct feeling that a little bit of Giulietta Masina goes a long, long way. She was cute and everything, but God!!! All that mugging! I couldn’t take it after awhile.

So it took me several more years to get around to “Night of Cabiria,” fearing as I did that Masina would “cute” it to death. No worries, Masina is wonderful – tough, tender and funny all at once. I love that little, perky ponytail she wears. My heart absolutely broke for her all the way through.

I was in such an expansive frame of mind regarding Masina that I decided right after watching “Cabiria” to finally watch “Juliet of the Spirits” – a film I slept almost entirely through in my college Introduction to Film class, buried under my winter coat on a Monday night in drafty old Woodburn Hall.

Turns out, I’ve should have watched this one before seeing “Alice,” since “Alice” is at least partially based on/inspired by it. Another upper-crust housewife in an empty marriage, searching for meaning and fulfillment, more fantasy sequences and mystical stuff. (Except with Fellini, the fantasy sequences really are fantastical – strange, beautiful and way, way over the top. And the costumes are so yummy and crazy. Even if it’s’ not top-drawer Fellini, you gotta kinda love it, right?)

And yet….

By about the one-hour point, it was all all too weird for me. I think it was the “Exorcist”-like moment with that wizened little guru-lady being taken over by some other personality while she’s in the midst of giving Juliet sexual advice. – that’s the moment that sent me over the edge. I hit the Stop button, I couldn’t go on. Maybe I was just weary from cramming too many movies into a 48-hour period. (I haven’t even gotten to the documentary film “Chris and Don” that I watched early on Saturday morning.)

The remaining 90 minutes of “Juliet…” are waiting for me on the DVR. Perhaps I’ll get to them on Tuesday.