An Education(10/30/2009)

            Early in this decade a movie came out called High Fidelity, which got very strong reviews but was avoided by myself for a very long time.  The idea of a romantic film starring John Cusack did not appeal to me, but eventually I did see it and was surprised to find it was a very well thought out story made more endearing by the fact that it uses a music fanatic as its main protagonist.  This film was based on a novel by a man named Nick Hornby, and while the way that Stephen Frears and his team of writers adapted the film certainly had a lot to do with its success, I’d be willing to bet that the heart of what that made the film special was in the pages of Hornby’s book.  Ever since that production Hornby has been a pretty hot commodity in Hollywood, adaptations of his work include About a Boy and Fever Pitch (which was made into an English version about soccer and an American version about baseball).  But now the tables are turned, and now Nick Hornby has become a screenwriter adapting someone else’s work, in this case a memoir of a British journalist named Lynn Barber about her coming of age. 

            The film is set in suburban London circa 1961 and focuses on a sixteen year old girl named Jenny (Carey Mulligan) who is both beautiful and the smartest girl in her class.  Her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) have her on a strict regimen that will hopefully result in her being accepted to Oxford.  One part of this regimen is that she’s taken up the cello, and this leads to a chance encounter after a band rehearsal with a man in his thirties named David (Peter Sarsgaard) who offers her a ride home.  After this encounter David begins to romance Jenny and invites her on extravagant outings with his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike).  Jenny’s teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson) become concerned with this affair and warn that it will threaten her future education, but a life with David is beginning to seem like just as viable a future to Jenny as Oxford, after all he’s able to bring her into high society without having to waste time with a bunch of petty students for three years.

            Perhaps the thing this film will be most remembered for is that it introduced the world to Carey Mulligan.  Mulligan has heretofore mostly accumulated credits for small parts on English television and is probably most noted for a small role alongside Keira Knightley in the Joe Wright adaptation of Pride & Prejudice.  Her work here has been championed as a breakthrough and I will not disagree, she has real star potential.  For this role Mulligan must be a teenager who thinks she’s wiser than she really is and has an energy that makes her standout amongst her peers.  In this sense the role is not unlike the title role in the 2007 film Juno, albeit in a completely different time and place and without the Diablo Cody-isms.  Like Page before her she is able to walk that line between appearing naïve while outwardly trying to exude sophistication and spunk. 

            She is however just one part of a very strong ensemble.  Peter Sarsgaard has the difficult task of making the audience forget that he is a thirty-something creep trying to sleep with a teenager so as to show why said teenager would fall for him.  He needs to be charming and pleasant, while also having a bit of that dark side beneath the surface.  Alfred Molina is also going to get a lot of attention for his work here, and this is well deserved.  His character is pretty funny in his often silly values, and this could have played pretty fake if the actor wasn’t up to the task.  Molina makes the father character seem like a real person, even when he’s places the value of knowing a famous author above being a famous author.   Actors in smaller roles like Cooper, Pike, Williams, and Thompson also nicely fill out the cast.

            Like Mulligan, director Lone Scherfig has emerged from obscurity as an important talent out of this project.  I’ll bring up Juno again as a point of comparison, because like Jason Reitman she seems able to give an ambitious directorial edge to her work without suffocating the material with overwhelming style.  She’s able to emphasize the glamour of Jenny and David’s outings in a way that makes it seem as intoxicating to the viewer as it does to Jenny in a way that is essential to the believability of the story.  Of course this would all be wasted were it not for the solid script by Nick Hornby who further proves that he has a knack for creating endearing and likable characters while giving them really clever, but not overly stylized dialogue.

            As I’ve established, there was a lot of talent put behind this and it shows up onscreen, but I ultimately couldn’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed by the end result.  I can’t help but think that Lynn Barber’s story was perhaps not worthy of all this talent.  It’s clear from the beginning that this relationship is heading for disaster and that Jenny is walking into a trap, so this isn’t really much of a romance. And while there are some good giggles throughout I wouldn’t really recommend it simply as a comedy, so how is this going to stand on its own merely as a story?  This is where the house of cards falls down, because as a story this is actually a pretty simplistic work preaching the moral that younglings shouldn’t try to grow up too fast, they should stay in school, and not try to take shortcuts.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, it’s basically the best written, best acted, and best crafted afterschool special ever made.  This shortcoming is made worse by a twist towards the end which prevents the character from learning something for herself and instead has the truth thrust upon her.

            If ever there has been a movie that more toughly challenges Roger Ebert’s adage that “it’s not what a movie is about, but how it’s about it that matters” in my mind.  The “what” that this movie is about is rather boring to me, but the “how” it’s about it is very strong.  Ultimately, I’m going to have to split the difference and recommend that people see this movie in order to enjoy it in the moment, enjoy the acting, enjoy the script, enjoy the filmmaking, but the whole affair is more shallow than it first appears and it avoids a lot of the tougher questions involved in favor of light-handed moralizing.

*** out of four

DVD Catch-Up: Goodbye Solo(10/24/2009)

            You may have never heard of Ramin Bahrani, but his films are among the most important movies coming out of the United States today.  Bahrani has made three films now and while none of them have come close to penetrating the mainstream, all of them have an aura of something new and special.  His distinct style clearly owes a lot to the Italian Neo-Realist movement (some have glibly called his style neo-neo-realism), as each film depicts a character struggling to survive in poverty and he extensively uses non actors in order to make everything as authentic as possible.  I discovered his first film, Man Push Cart, on the Sundance Channel and was immediately transfixed by the travails of the central character as he tried desperately to make ends meet on the streets of New York.  His follow up, Chop Shop, also depicted a side of the big apple which has heretofore gone unnoticed by the general public and the world seemed all the more tragic because it was a child placed at the center of the film.  My opinion of both of these films has only grown upon reflection and I was certainly excited to see what Bahrani would show us next.  His newest film, Goodbye Solo, shifts locations from New York to North Carolina but this does nothing to diminish the newest fascinating slice of life from this important filmmaker.

            The film opens in a taxi cab driven by Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané), a Senegalese immigrant with a young family who aspires to become a flight attendant and leave behind his cab.  In the back seat of the car is William (Red West), a grumpy old man who’s become very depressed and disillusioned as of late.  William has made a proposition to Solo, in a few weeks he wants to be driven out to an area landmark called the Blowing Rock, he doesn’t want a return trip.  Solo asks if William plans to jump off this rock but receives no answer.  After Solo accepts a hundred dollar deposit for this grim task he decides to try befriending William in hopes of eventually dissuading him from his suicidal plans, but William may be beyond saving at this point. 

            While Bahrani’s first two films were squarely focused on a single character, this one focuses on a pair of them.  Solo, like the immigrants in the first two films, is trying to slowly build a life for himself through tedious day to day work.  Unlike the other two, he’s got a family of sort including a step daughter.  The other major character is William, who’s played by veteran bit player Red West, though if this were a mainstream film he probably would have been played by someone like Nick Nolte.  He’s a gruff old man who doesn’t speak a lot and who isn’t willing to wear his heart on his sleeve.  William always resists Solo’s attempts to help him, but one gets a sense of growing respect between the two.  This relationship could have easily turned into a saccharine weep-fest were the story placed in the wrong hands, but Bahrani does a very careful tightrope walk and makes the story real rather than contrived.

            A big part of the appeal in Bahrani’s films is the way they let you eavesdrop into the lives of people you normally don’t have contact with.  Chop Shop was particularly good at this; it was set in the middle of Queens but felt like it was set in a foreign country.  Goodbye Solo does not maintain this same sense of foreignness, but it does feel like it’s peaking into a part of the country that isn’t always fun to think about.  Bahrani has never ended on an overwhelmingly unhappy note, and each one of them has been more hopeful than the last.  The ending of Goodbye Solo is particularly strong in the way it manages to balance hope and melancholy through a few well chosen images. 

            Writing this, I consistently find myself referring back to Bahrani’s previous work and comparing.  Such is the nature of the man’s oeuvre, in a particularly auteurist way he’s managed to make statements in individual films that are magnified by their place in a larger body of work.  These are some of the best films about the American immigrant experience that I’ve ever seen and in bringing the techniques of Italian neo-realism into the 21st century, Bahrani has crafted a unique style that has only improved over the course of three films.  I’m dying to know where Bahrani goes from here, until then we have a trilogy of excellent films to admire.

**** out of Four

Paranormal Activity(10/23/2009)

            In this brave new world of digital cameras and youtube we’ve been hearing people talk at length about the notion of amateurs making films in their backyards completely removed from “the system.”  I’ve never really been a believer in the concept.  Sure there have been a handful of very good micro-budget movies in the past few years but the chances of them really breaking out into the public at large seems to be about the same as they were before all this new technology when people like Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, and Richard Linklater put out similarly budgeted movies to similar success.  But, if there’s ever been a clear example of the new system working it’s got to be the new thriller Paranormal Activity, which was made in seven days on a budget of fifteen thousand dollars by someone with no formal film training. 

            The film takes place entirely in the house of Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston), a young couple that is “engaged to be engaged.”  Katie has been hearing strange noises in the night and feels it is part of a pattern of odd occurrences she’s been sensing occasionally since she was a young girl.  Intrigued, Michah buys a professional grade camera he hopes will help them to better document what’s been going on, especially while the two of them are asleep.  As their project goes on they do indeed start to pick up some strange occurrences on the tape like a door moving on its own and a few odd noises.  They are not sure how to react to what’s been going on but as the nights go by the events the camera picks up start to become more and more threatening.

            This is essentially a haunted house movie, but in a way it isn’t.  It’s established early on (by a psychic) that the force behind this disturbance is not a ghost, but a demon.  Further it is established that this demon is not linked to the house the couple is living in, rather it has been targeting Katie since long before she found her way to this luxurious San Diego residence.  This is a very smart bit of exposition because it eliminates the thing that almost always sinks haunted house movies: the notion that the characters could solve all their problems by simply moving.  The choice of a demon rather than a ghost is also smart, something about the idea of a demon (which is distinguished as being a non human force as opposed to a deceased human spirit) just conjures up creepier images in the mind. 

            This plot is actually remarkably similar to a horror movie of a much different kind from earlier this year, Drag Me to Hell.  Both films are about women who find themselves targeted by demons and must seek assistance from various paranormal “experts.”  The difference of course is that Drag Me to Hell revels in its silliness; it’s a fun, loud, movie and all of its thrills were right in your face.  There’s nothing wrong with any of that and I don’t make this comparison to disparage Sam Raimi’s film, but Paranormal Activity takes almost the exact opposite approach with a similar concept.  The approach in Oren Peli’s film is decidedly minimalist in comparison.  Here the titular activity comes slowly into the film, the demon does things that are clearly beyond logical explanation but which seem oddly more disturbing because they are done in a way that is still oddly close to reality.  Of course this approach would have quickly become tedious if Peli had remained too subtle for too long, thankfully he knows just when to start making the demon more daring in his appearances.  This is not like the Blair Witch Project where they wait until pretty much the last shot to actually have something happen.

            Which I suppose brings us to the fact that this is yet another “found footage” movie.  Ever since the aforementioned  phenomenon of a film there have been a lot of these movies, and after each one gets made everyone feels like they’ve just seen the last film that will get away with the format before it becomes lame, and yet more and more come out to prove there’s still life in the technique.  Between [REC], Cloverfield, and this film the ante just seems to keep going up.  Perhaps the main appeal of filming a movie like this is that it requires less of a tech budget and less formal training to accomplish, after all, when trying to emulate an amateur a certain lack of professionalism actually helps rather than hurts your film and even the more heavily produced examples of the genre like Cloverfield are cheaper than their competitors.  To a mainstream audience crappy film stock is a pretty big distraction unless there’s a narrative reason why what they’re looking at is a lot uglier than the latest Platinum Dunes splatterfest.  But let’s not take that to mean that anyone could have made a movie like Paranormal Activities, because trust me, everyone is trying and there’s a reason why Oren Peli’s movie is the one in more than a thousand theaters right now and everyone else’s isn’t.

            Of course, like many types of genre film, these found footage films need to establish their rules early on.  For example, both Cloverfield and [REC] took the approach of having the movies (sort of) play out in real time, with cuts only occurring when the camera operator choose to turn his device off.  This film and The Blair Witch Project instead choose to suggest that the people who found the footage edited the film together. Perhaps the bigger (and decidedly more meta) decision that must be made is how to present the film.  The Blair Witch Project made the mistake of presenting the material as if it were a real documentary telling an authentic story even though it was quite obviously fake.  The thing is, absolutely no one really thought that movie was real, they were just having fun playing along with the fiction the filmmakers had created.  However, there were plenty of people who thought they were surrounded by morons who really did believe it and the result was a backlash perpetrated by those who thought they were smarter than everybody else.  That’s why Paramount pictures has been pretty carefully avoiding any claims that this is anything other than a scary movie and selling the project more on the communal experience of seeing it in crowed theater full of screaming people.  However, once people have entered the theater the movie still operates in a way that will accentuate the illusion of reality.  The film actually has no studio logo at the beginning (an almost unprecedented rarity) and even more surprisingly it has no credits, something I didn’t even know was legal in this day and age. 

            Something that probably gives this a leg up over its underground competition is that it has managed to snare a pair of actors that know what they’re doing.  In many ways, trying to act in a mockumentary seems to be as distinct from acting in a scripted film as acting in a scripted film is to acting on stage.  The people acting in movies like this have to achieve a special level of naturalism while working with dialogue that is not flashy and they don’t have the luxury of perfect camera angles.  Moreover, the actors themselves need to be both anonymous and average looking, while still trying to make the audience empathize with them.  Brian De Palma’s film Redacted gives an excellent example of what not to do when acting in a movie like this, and yet there’s probably yet to be an example of such acting that’s so overwhelmingly good as to provide a high point to compare other films by.  Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston (the characters share their names with the actors) are for the most part just the kind of actors that a film like this needs.  Both look just like the kind of people you’d run into on the street, they talk like average Joes, but they also have personalities you can sort of latch onto.  Featherston in particular makes for a very pleasant screen presence, she feels like that friend of a friend you have and this kind of familiarity helps breed a lot of empathy for the character.

            There are however some problems that do hold this movie back from minimalist perfection.  In particular, I was a bit annoyed by the way the characters acted in order to deal with they’re situation.  Katie desperately wants to call a demonologist to help with the situation while wants to dissect the situation further, mainly through the use of the camera.  Both of these seem like workable plans, but neither of them are mutually exclusive, and yet each of them is openly hostile to the other’s plan.  Micah’s refusal to call the demonologist is particularly frustrating, I can understand why he’d be wary of the notion when the haunting seemed less than real, but there’s a certain point where the existence of this phenomenon becomes undeniable and at that point the two would do any and everything that they need to do in order to solve their problem.   Even after this point Micah refuses to call the one person who by all accounts can deal with the situation, claiming that he’s going to deal with the problem himself.  What?  It’s a frickin’ demon, what the hell does this guy expect to do?  Punch it?  And Katie’s refusal to examine the video evidence is at times just as silly.  You’d think that these people would be desperate enough to accept any help they can get and the notion that there’s some sort of conflict of interest between the two approaches doesn’t really make any sense. 

            Another problematic element emerges when the movie begins to try to explain what’s been going on.  Throughout the movie, there are a lot of hints and clues as to a larger explanation of what’s been going on to Katie.  Other cases are found, a history is established and photographs are found.  None of these are particularly obtrusive except that they’re complete red herrings that don’t really add up to much of anything.  The nature of this haunting is never really explained, in fact that give the movie a lot of its creepy feeling.  In fact I’m glad they never explain the nature of this beast, but in establishing a mystery without a solution they are sort of setting the audience up for an anticlimax.  Don’t get me wrong, the ending itself is quite good and the last shot is a real doozy, but it feels particularly abrupt because they’ve made it seem like we’re owed a few more twists before this finale.

            Is Paranormal Activity just a product of clever marketing? No, it’s the real deal.  But that’s not to say that it’s some sort of classic of the horror genre.  The movie is not a perfect gem, nor was ever likely to be one, there’s a certain risk/reward payoff to filming a movie like this and this has gotten about as much out of the concept as it possibly could.  Like The Blair Witch Project before it, this will probably be remembered more as a triumph of marketing than as a triumph of filmmaking, but the people in the marketing department aren’t rainmakers and this triumph of marketing would not have been possible were it not for the important fact the Paranormal Activity works.  Oh, and don’t listen to the people telling you that this is best enjoyed when watching it with a theater full of screaming douchebags, I saw it at three in the afternoon in a theater with maybe ten people in it and it worked just fine.

***1/2 out of Four

The Informant!(10/10/2009)

            Contrary to what Ayn Rand may have told you, corporations are for the most part evil.  When left to their own devices they will gladly screw over their competitors, their employees, and their customers if it will make them a little more profit.  This is why they make such effective Hollywood villains, they have a long history of activities that would make Darth Vader blush and deep down they have almost no remorse.  Since every villain needs a hero to vanquish them, Hollywood has invented someone to put a white hat on: the whistleblower.  While the whistleblower genre probably doesn’t have as many websites dedicated to it as other sub-genres, it’s actually a pretty populous category of film and like most things that are done to death people are beginning to get a bit sick of its pattern of self-riotousness and manufactured drama.  So, when it came to light that Steven Soderbergh was making adapting the story of real life whistle blower Mark Whitacre it was safe to guess we’d get something more than standard genre fare, and from the moment the film’s trailer came out it was clear that was the case.

            Based on the nonfiction book by Kurt Eichenwald, this film tells the story of the man who helped the FBI conduct one of the biggest price fixing scams in American History.  This investigation began when the company called in the FBI to deal with an extortion scheme reported by Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), an executive in the lysine division of ADM.  Shortly into an investigation by agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), Whitacre reveals that he and his colleagues have been illegally conspiring with other companies to systematically drive up prices worldwide.  Whitacre agrees to wear a wire and collect evidence against the company he works for, and in doing so is able to collect an unprecedented amount of evidence for the FBI.  Whitacre claims he’s doing this to clear his conscience, but he doesn’t really seem all that torn up about lysine consumers, so why is he doing this?  That will turn out to be the key question at the heart of all of this, because Mark Whiticre is not exactly what he seems.

            The conventional wisdom about Steven Soderbergh is that he does big budget studio produced films filled with celebrities in order to build the cache required to make low budget experimental films starring non-actors.  Because of this reputation critics are inevitably going to deride this as one of the former, but really this whole notion is something of a misnomer.  This may have a bigger budget than something like Bubble and it may star an A-list celebrity, but deep down the way this film handles genre is just as experimental as a lot of those other projects. If you go to one of those seminars they have to teach screenwriters how to build successful formulaic films step by step, the first thing they’ll tell you is to focus on a character with a clear motivation and to have that motivation drive the plot.  As such, this would have largely focused on the goal of bringing down ADM and stuck with this conflict throughout if this were a conventional film.  Instead, this movie becomes defiantly disinterested in the fate of ADM and instead focuses on what the title says it will focus on the informant.

            This informant himself is a pretty odd character played brilliantly by Matt Damon.  Whiticre is a strange person who seems more like Ned Flanders than Deep Throat.  He’s in his forties, has a bad comb-over, and a goofy looking mustache.  More importantly, the guy’s a doofus; he’s the antithesis of the intense image of businessman that Gordon Gecko embodied.  At times Whiticre seems to not grasp the stakes of his actions, and the film’s voice over track is clouded by his odd stream-of-consciousness musings about subjects ranging from the German word for pen to the thinking patterns of polar bears.  This man’s existence is certainly one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” type creations and making him believable had to have been a hefty challenge.  Fortunately Matt Damon brings Whiticre to the screen excellently.  It takes a little while for Damon’s achievement to really sink in, but when you compare his performance here to the badass he was when playing Jason Bourne and it becomes immensely clear how much of a range Damon has as an actor.

             Because Whiticre is so strange many have come to label this movie a spoof, but I’d hesitate to use that term simply because it conjures images of broadly comic films like Aireplane and Scary Movie, and this film is neither as silly as those films nor is it trying to be as funny.  However, this film does play with genre conventions in a way that’s not completely unlike what spoof films do.  This is a movie that easily could have focused other elements, chosen a different tone, and used different techniques and end up looking like a remake of The Insider.  Instead Soderbergh is able to make this movie a completely different through a handful of unexpected decisions.   For example, the film has adopted a very 1970s aesthetic (even though the story is set in the early 90s), this would seem like a logical enough choice if one was trying to channel the corporate thrillers of that era like The China Syndrome, Serpico, and Silkwood, but it isn’t really the serious filmmaking of the 70’s that he’s channeling.  Rather, Soderbergh is channeling everything that was kind of tacky about the era like the gaudy font the captions are in or the unexpected but compelling smooth jazz score by Marvin Hamlisch.  As such, the film’s aesthetics sort of play with what we’re supposed to expect from this kind of movie just as much as the script does.

            Ignoring all the genre trickery we do still get what is on its own a very fascinating story.  Mark Whitacre is an enigma, one that has not been completely cracked by the time the credits role and a big part of the joys of this film are trying to figure out just what makes him tick.  What’s more strange is that aside from some of his more self-sabotaging habits, Whitacre isn’t too different from most corporate executives.  He’s a man who lies, cheats, and steals almost as a habit then hides behind an “aw shucks” smile, the only difference is that he seems to believe his own bullshit.  In focusing on this personality we get a much better look at the face of corporate crime than we ever would watching the heroes take down another anonymous board room filled with mustache twirlers.  While I wouldn’t place this in the upper echelon of Soderbergh’s work, this is a movie that deserves as much respect and analysis his movies which wear their experimental nature like a badge of honor.

***1/2 out of Four

(500) Days of Summer(8/12/2009)

            One of my favorite online past-times is to read a blog called “Stuff White People Like.”  This is a satirical site that catalogs and explains various things that white people (by which they mean hipster yuppies) disingenuously enjoy out of a subconscious desire to be hipper than thou.  Every entry of this blog deals with a subject like “Organic Food,” “David Sedaris,” or “New Balance Shoes.”  So why do I bring this up?  Because I think the people who write for that site could write an entire book about how much of the new Indie romance (500) Days of Summer has been done in order to impress white people.  Among the entries of that blog which would apply to this film are: “Apple Products,” “Indie Music,” “Irony,” “Juno,” “Girls With Bangs,” “Musical Comedy (courtesy of a brief but conspicuous dance scene, more about that latter),” “Modern Furniture,” “Bad Memories of High School,” “T-Shirts,” “Architecture,” “Wes Anerson,” “Having Two Last Names (courtesy of star Joseph Gordon-Levit),” and I’m probably forgetting a few.

              The film announces from the beginning (via a monotone voice over reminiscent of The Royal Tenenbaums) that this is a story of boy meets girl, but that it is not a love story.  The boy is Tom Hanson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a twenty-something working at a greeting card company in spite of the fact that he holds an architecture degree.  The girl is Summer Finn (Get it! Her name’s Summer and the movie is called 500 Days of Summer!) who is played by Zooey Deschanel.  Summer is the new assistant at Tom’s greeting card company, they have little to do with each other at first, but eventually they bond over their enjoyment of the band The Smiths.  Soon they hook up, but it’s clear that they are both looking for different things in a relationship.  Tom believes in true love and is out looking for “the one,” while Summer is a free spirit just looking for a good time.  Their relationship goes for many ups and downs over the course of the film and eventually they must either reconcile their difference or, well… the voice over did say this wasn’t a love story.

            I’ve heard a lot of stories about the way “mini-majors” (The “independent” divisions of major studios, ala Miramax, Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics, etc.) control things when they are producing movies.  Bear in mind that this refers to the movies they actually produce, not necessarily the ones they purchase and distribute.  The conclusion many have drawn about these studios is that they control productions just as much as the major studios do, that the “independent” label is merely a marketing device.  The “mini-major” who’s most notorious for this is Fox Searchlight Pictures, the people who brought us Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, and Juno.  Now of course those are good movies, and the mere fact that a studio has control over a film doesn’t mean it will automatically be bad, but it can be a big roadblock to true creativity, and this will rear its head in movies from studios like this that are less successful than the aforementioned titles.  I bring all this up because (500) Days of Summer seems to me like a ground zero for just how crass mini-majors have become.

            At its heart, I think this movie does have a pretty cute story that has a whiff of authenticity to it, but all of that has been steamrolled by a lot of derivative and obnoxious directorial tricks courtesy director Marc Webb, who unsurprisingly has a background in music videos.  It feels almost like the script was given to some sort of mad scientist in the Fox Searchlight labs (we’ll call him a quirkologist), who went through it and decided to add every whimsical “indie” cliché he could think of.  It’s got a non-chronological narrative, a load of pop culture references, an indie rock soundtrack, moments of unexpected animation, and even a god damn spontaneous musical number that’s been added for questionable reasons.  The base story is of course inviting such a treatment in many ways; after all, it’s about a mopey quarter-life crisis guy who seeks happiness via a manic pixie dream girl.  For those who do not know the phrase “manic pixie dreamgirl,” it’s a work coined by critic Nathan Rabin to describe women in films that appear out of nowhere merely to serve the purpose of acting wacky and lifting up the film’s male protagonist.   Zach Braff’s Garden State and Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown both did as much with this archetype as was ever needed and this movie seems rather superfluous.  Oh, and don’t get me started on Tom’s magically precocious little sister who gives him love advice.

            Now in spite of my general distaste for this film’s derivative elements and general obnoxiousness, there are aspects to it that were clever.  Earlier I glibly dismissed the film’s non-chronological narrative as one of a list of indie clichés it indulges in, but the truth is that the technique was uses pretty effectively here and if that were the only of those clichés it used I probably wouldn’t have made the complaint.  Also, there are some genuinely funny moments sprinkled throughout the film, I especially liked the film’s customized “the events are fiction” disclaimer at the beginning and the reading of a greeting card that Tom writes while in the midst of depression.  Also, the acting in the film is mostly admirable.  While the film’s main character is a whiney tool, the way Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays him makes him seem a lot more relatable than the character that’s written on the script.  Zooey Deschanel is trying to do something similar, but the script has placed more obstacles in her path than in her co-star’s. 

            When all is said and done, this is a very irritating film.  It’s a romantic comedy that uses hip techniques and references to hide the fact that at its heart it’s just another date movie.  That said, it does at least try to hide this fact, which is more than can be said of the cookie-cutter nonsense like The Proposal which has dominated the genre for the longest time.  As such, it probably is an above average choice if one is looking to take someone of the opposite sex to see something that could be called romantic.  Under all other circumstances I’d advise against seeing it.

** out of Four

A Serious Man(10/2/2009)

            If in 2005, you’d asked me about the importance of the Coen brothers to the world of film, I probably would have sadly reported that they might have been on the road to irrelevance.  After all, their 2004 remake of The Ladykillers was not well received, nor was their previous film Intolerable Cruelty.  Even the films they made earlier in the decade like The Man Who Wasn’t There and O Brother Where Art Thou? were by no means unmitigated triumphs.  What a difference two years make.  In the last two years the Coens have not only reclaimed their crown as American masters but have gone a step further.  With their 2007 Oscar winner No Country For Old Men they made a taught thriller while pushing their aesthetic forward, and with their 2008 comedy Burn After Reading they proved that they could still make hilarious and accessible comedies while maintaining their dark sensibilities.  I’ve always loved the Coens when they’re making broad comedy and dark thrillers; but their 2009 victory lap A Serious Man takes the form of that third type of film they’ve made throughout their careers, quirky/metaphorical dramedies, and that’s the side of their oeuvre I’ve never quite been able to close the deal on.

            Set (and setting is never an unimportant detail in the work of the Coen brothers) in a Minnesota suburb circa 1967, A Serious Man sings the ballad of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish professor of theoretical physics.  Gopnik is up for tenure as the film begins and his son will soon be undergoing his Bar Mitzvah, but he soon finds himself in the middle of an existential crisis.  Gopnik’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) seems to be deep in some shady dealings and has come to live with Larry.  Worse yet, Gopnik’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) tells him that she’s been seeing another man named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and that she wants a Get (a divorce within “the faith”).  If that weren’t enough, he’s having a moral crisis over how to handle a Korean student who has left him an envelope of cash in order to receive a passing grade and he’s been getting threatening calls from the Columbia Record Club.  As the movie goes on, these troubles seem less and less like coincidences and more and more like a series of tests from “Hashem.” 

            The Coen Brothers have always been an auteurist’s dream; they’ve had an incredibly distinct yet oddly adaptable style that absolutely envelopes everything they touch, at times almost to a fault.  Fitting this film into the Coens’ body of work is one of its bigger pleasures.  The film’s Minnesota setting will immediately invite comparisons to Fargo, but that’s a red herring, this film’s depiction of that setting is pretty different and its story is less literally blood soaked.  Narratively I’d probably compare it to The Man Who Wasn’t There in that it’s about an ordinary man whose world collapses around him, tonally I’d probably compare it to the dead faced Miller’s Crossing, but the movie I’d most readily compare it to is Barton Fink both in its surrealism and in its spiritual overtones. 

As such the film will probably fit pretty well into the Coen cannon, but its real gift to those analyzing the Coens as auteurs is much richer.  This is a very personal film for the Coens, as it depicts the place where their odd, subdued psyches formed, as such this could be something of a Rosetta Stone for their sensibilities.  The suburb here is unnamed, but it is presumably the Coens’ hometown of St. Louis Park, an old inner-ring suburb west of Minneapolis.  The place has a very large Jewish population that lives among the town’s otherwise gentile Midwestern inhabitants.  As I am myself a Minneapolis resident, I can attest that this is indeed a pretty detailed an accurate depiction of the area, although a lot has changed since 1967.  St. Louis Park doesn’t look as desolate now as it does in the movie (which was actually filmed in a suburb called Bloomington), but there still is a pretty large Jewish population there.  Less important than the look are the mannerisms and the details, which rang a lot more true here than they did in Fargo, a film in which everyone seemed to talk like they came straight out of a bad Ole and Lena joke. 

All this meticulous setting detail isn’t just window dressing either; it serves to explain a lot of the main characters psychological state.  Larry Gopnik is made to feel like an outsider in this suburb filled with mowed lawns and gruff gentiles who play catch and go hunting.  His knowledge of Physics seems to mostly go unrewarded (he says he’s never published) and he’s only got three mostly unhelpful Rabbis to turn to during his crisis of faith.  Gopnik’s nebbishy tendencies might have served him better in New York where he could have made friends with Woody Allen or something, but here he’s pretty much on his own.  Also interesting is the effect the setting has on his children, particularly his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) who is most likely a stand in for the Coens.  The summer of love exists only on the radio for Danny and he’s pretty aggressively uninterested both in his father’s travails and in the faith that makes him an outsider.  One can picture him eventually getting bored enough to pick up a guitar to imitate the Jefferson Airplane music he’s always listening to, or if film had been his area of interest, perhaps a video camera.

Philosophically, the film addresses the age old question of why bad things happen to good people.  That’s never really been a concern to secular thinkers like myself, but to people like Larry Gopnik who feel they are under the protection of a benevolent God, it is a conundrum. 

Many have seen the film as having been based on the book of Job, and I will not disagree, in fact there are images toward the end of the film which all but confirm the connection.  Essentially, Larry is subject to every cruel unpleasantly that the Coens can throw at him, but he puts up with it all because of his faith and his passive aggressive nature.  I’m no theologian so I’m not going to comment on this too much; but I’m pretty sure that the Coens have changed the story’s ending to cynical effect, and that I like. 

            Some have said that the Coens have used celebrities as a crutch as of late, something this film will never be accused of as this film is pretty much devoid of them.  The cast here is for the most part solid but anonymous, many of them being never before seen on film.  Michael Stuhlbarg is quite strong in the lead; he manages to walk the fine line of nebbish stereotype, always falling just on the right side, and as his desperation grows he’s able to perfectly panic while trying desperately to internalize as much as he can.  Richard Kind is probably the most recognizable face in the whole film, and he brings a pretty good presence to the whole thing.  Similarly, Fred Melamed brings a real “that guy” presence to the film.  If those names aren’t obscure enough for you, the Coens have also filled the movie with people who’ve never been in a movie before like Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, and David Kang who fit in right alongside the anonymous veterans.

            Had this film come out in 2005 (in the wake of the Ladykillers debacle) it probably would have been called a return to form, coming out 2009 it’s more like a return to weirdness.  In spite of all the film’s many merits, this is simply a movie that is almost smothered in the Coens usual quirks and it will probably baffle anyone who isn’t a diehard Coen veteran.  Coen films are almost never “for everyone” and this one is even more “not for everyone” than usual, and I’m not sure it was “for me.”  This is a film that is hard to truly like but almost impossible not to respect.

*** out of Four