A Stray


A day in the park with your dog,

(2016) Drama (Self-Released) Barkhad Abdirahman, Fathia Absie, Faysal Ahmed, Ayla, Christina Baldwin, Jamaal Farah, Ifrah Mansour, George McCauley, Ben Phelps, Andrew Stecker, Rhiana Yazzle. Directed by Musa Syeed

With our President and his followers at the forefront of an anti-immigration movement that has swept through the West, it is a difficult time to be an immigrant, particularly for those who are Muslims and especially from those regions that are hotbeds of terrorist activity. We rarely get the point of view from the immigrant side of things, but the obstacles they face in this country were already hard to begin with.

Adan (Abdirahman) is a Somali refugee living in Minneapolis with his mom and sister, but he is having a particularly hard time with it. Although when employed he is a hard worker, he also has a temper and a willingness to bend rules, turning him to a life of petty crime. When his mother discovers that he has pawned some of her jewelry, she throws him out onto the street.

A kindly Imam gives him shelter and a menial job, and arranges for the restaurant next door to hire him. The owner befriends Adan and gives him the responsibility of delivering food. On his way to his first delivery, he accidentally hits a dog crossing the street. A passing bicyclist guilts him into taking the dog to the vet, where Adan is relieved to discover the dog is uninjured.

Adan doesn’t particularly like dogs; his religion portrays them as disloyal and filthy. He is eager to give the dog away but nobody seems to want the dog. In the meantime Adan scrounges for food and finds places to sleep wherever he can. He gets money working as an FBI informant mainly translating phone calls that the FBI agent (Baldwin) in charge of him thinks might be national security threats but to Adan’s amusement is mainly about much more mundane things.

As time goes by Adan’s attitude towards the dog begins to change. He sees in him a kindred spirit, and even though he refuses to give the mutt a name, he finds himself identifying with a fellow unwanted creature who doesn’t really fit in anywhere.

I love the duality of the title; on the surface it might seem to refer to the dog but in fact it is the man who is the title subject. Adan is the stray here; it is the dog that gives him a sense of worth. It also must be said that the dog is damn adorable.  W.C. Fields famously advised that you should never work with animals or children and he has a point; none of the mainly non-professional cast stands a chance with the dog.

Abdirahman had a supporting part as one of the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips but I suspect he’s in over his head here. His delivery is wooden and although there are times when he uses body language to get his points across (and there he’s very successful), he really has issues delivering dialogue with any sort of emotion. It might be he still doesn’t feel confident in his English, which is heavily accented and some of the fellow viewers at the screening I attended complained that he was difficult to understand in places.

Minneapolis has one of the largest concentrations of Somalis outside of Somalia and we get an insider’s look at their daily lives. Most of the immigrants are, like Adan himself, hard-working when given the chance and want nothing more than to live their lives in peace the way they were unable to in war-torn Somalia. They worship in their mosques, educate their children and hope for a better life for them down the road. The one issue I have is that the pacing of the film is extremely slow and even at a scant 80 minutes feels like it would have done better as a 40 minute short.

The anti-immigration movement that was referred to at the beginning of this review plays only on the fringes of the film as snippets of television broadcasts. We don’t see any active bullying of the Somalis by American thugs and I get the sense that even in today’s environment that kind of thing is rare. It certainly doesn’t seem to be much of a part of the life of Adan and his circle of…well, not really friends so much as acquaintances. Still, I found myself thinking about violence against immigrants throughout the film in the back of my mind.

Given what has happened in American politics since this was filmed it is an incredibly timely arrival. This is a movie that I would like to give a much more enthusiastic recommendation to but the flaws are deep enough I can only give it a mild recommendation. This is a movie that embodies a filmmaker with a story that is absolutely worth telling but who is unfortunately still learning how to streamline his storytelling at this moment.

REASONS TO GO: A personalized look at the Muslim refugee issue. The dog is absolutely adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace of the film is excruciatingly slow. Abdirahman is less than scintillating in the lead role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some language, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shaw got his start doing online comic books and discovered he could animate the films using Photoshop and the same tools he used to create his online comics; in fact, this film was originally intended to be an online comic.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Lowriders

Wilson (2017)


A dysfunctional family portrait.

(2017) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Saito, Bill McCallum, Alec George, Nate Mooney, Paul Cram, Tom Proctor, Katie Rose Law, Roxy Wood, Bruce Bohne, Greta Oglesby, Rachel Weber, Toussaint Morrison, Tonita Castro. Directed by Craig Johnson

 

We all know someone like him; a person with the social skills of a charging bull. Someone who generates awkward silences like our president generates Tweets. You know, that person who stops every conversation dead in their tracks with pronouncements that defy reason or rudeness that defies civility.

Wilson (Harrelson) is that guy. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his dog that he adores but who pisses him off regularly. His only friend is moving about as far away as he can get and taking his shrewish wife with him. Wilson’s dad passes away from cancer soon afterward. With all this going on, Wilson decides he needs to reconnect with the world.

Doing that, he decides, means reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Dern). She’s no saint either, owning what could charitably be charitably described as a checkered past including prostitution and drug abuse. When Wilson finds her, she’s trying to get her life back together working as a waitress. But that’s not all.

When Pippi originally left, she’d told Wilson that she’d gotten an abortion – but psych! It turns out that she’d put the baby up for adoption instead. Claire (Amara) has been raised by wealthy parents but has plenty of issues. Wilson is determined to reach out to the child he never knew he had and establish a connection, dragging a reluctant Pippi along in the process. It could be a good thing but as Wilson is wont to do, he messes things up instead.

This is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay) and it plays in a lot of ways like a Clowes book; simply drawn and not terribly sketched out. However, I have to admit I went in with low expectations based on a trailer that felt like something I’d seen plenty of times before. In all honesty I was pleasantly surprised; I thought this was going to be one of those social experiments to find out how unlikable they can make the main character and still get some critical acclaim.

Frankly, the critical response has been surprisingly low on this one; the general consensus seems to be that the film is predictable and in some ways it is – Wilson’s journey is pretty much by-the-numbers and yet I left the theater feeling a bit of catharsis. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

It is definitely a movie that builds. Early on my low expectations were essentially being me and I remember leaning over and whispering to Da Queen “Oh, now I remember why Woody Harrelson is mostly playing support roles these days.” Well, more fool me – as the film progressed, Harrelson took over and while he was still playing a pretty much unlikable no-filter kind of guy, I felt myself beginning to root for Wilson. Hey, a guy that much into dogs can’t be all bad, right? In any case, I was reminded why Woody Harrelson has a filmography that a whole lot of actors in this town would envy. Okay, in Hollywood. EVERY actor in Orlando would envy Woody Harrelson’s filmography.

Yeah, there are places that the film gets a bit sentimental and yes, when Wilson hits rock bottom it’s hard not to get emotional. One thing though that differentiates this from other films of this ilk is that it has a superior cast. Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (who’s essentially only in one scene) and Cheryl Hines are top actresses who take a back seat to nobody in terms of consistent performances. They add depth to the film and give Harrelson plenty of places to play off of – Dern in particular makes an excellent foil for Harrison. The young Isabella Amara does some fine work here as well; her character is certainly complicated and troubled but is basically a decent girl who hasn’t gotten a ton of love in her life.

The ending is a little schmaltzy but all in all, I did end up liking Wilson more than I expected to. I’m not a big Clowes fan by any stretch of the imagination so that’s a bit of an accomplishment but I’m now very interested in picking up a couple of the man’s graphic novels and giving them another chance. Sometimes, changing your perspective is a right place at the right time kind of thing.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of film that grows on you. Wilson does in fact grow throughout the film which is a bit of a shocker.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too many neuroses on display for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a smidgeon of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The jail scenes were filmed at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota which is a working prison.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Barry

The End of the Tour


Writer to writer face-off.

Writer to writer face-off.

(2015) Biographical Drama (A24) Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston, Mickey Sumner, Becky Ann Baker, Dan John Miller, Chelsea Lawrence, Gina Ferwerda, Noel Fletcher, Lindsey Elizabeth, Johnny Otto, Stephanie Cotton, Joel Thingvall, Michael Cunningham, Rammel Chan, Ken Price, Jennifer Holman. Directed by James Ponsoldt

Fame, particularly for creative sorts, is not the brass ring that we imagine it to be. Many writers, artists, dancers, singers and actors do what they do because it is within them, bursting to get out. The wealth is nice mainly as a validation that they are connecting with someone; fame in and of itself is a dog with a temperament that you never know is going to snuggle with you or tear out your throat.

David Foster Wallace (Segel) has found fame, although he wasn’t looking for it. A literature professor at Illinois State University, his 1,000 plus page tome Infinite Jest has made him the darling of the literary crowd, a young American Turk who is proclaimed the voice of his generation. Wallace, somewhat shy and full of insecurities, is uncomfortable with this designation and is trying more or less to keep to himself.

David Lipsky (Eisenberg) has written a book of his own to little acclaim or acknowledgement. He is passionate about writing though and gets a job at Rolling Stone. When his girlfriend Julie (Gummer) turns him on to Infinite Jest, Lipsky realizes that this is the kind of voice that needs to be heard and he persuades his editor (Livingston) to send him to Bloomington, Illinois to interview the reclusive Wallace.

Wallace really isn’t anything like what Lipsky expected; he is surrounded by big dogs, lives in an unassuming ranch style home with a nice view of the prairie and eats massive amounts of junk food. He wears a bandana as a doo rag in a kind of throwback (even then) look that he takes great pains to say that it isn’t an affectation so much as a security blanket.

The two fly to Minneapolis for the last stop on Wallace’s book tour; they are met at the airport by Patty (Cusack), the publishing house representative who is to shuttle Wallace to a book signing/reading and an NPR interview. Lipsky accompanies him to these things and in meeting friends of his subject afterwards; Sarah (Chlumsky), a big fan who has been corresponding with Wallace for years, and Betsy (Sumner) who once had a relationship with Wallace in college.

In the course of the five days, Wallace and Lipsky talk about their shared likes, the creative process, the nature of fame and the things that motivate them. The two develop a bond that takes an odd turn, leading to an awkward final farewell.

In real life, the article was never published as Rolling Stone, perhaps to their discredit, elected to pass. It was only 12 years later, after Lipsky had heard of Wallace’s suicide, that he discovered the tapes from those five days and wrote a book based on them.

The movie, like the book it’s based on, elects to forego nostalgia and hero-worship and focus on a character study. Do not imagine that you are meeting David Wallace here; five days in the company of anyone, not even constant company, can truly give you an accurate portrayal of who a person is. We get that Wallace is insecure, not just about his talent but how he is perceived. That seems to be a pretty major issue with him. I found it interesting – and maybe a little unsettling – that the original tapes that Lipsky recorded were used mostly to help the actors get into character. Apparently they weren’t used in the writing of the script, so in essence we’re getting all this third hand.

Segel, who has made a career of playing big likable shaggy dog guys in comedies, steps out of his comfort zone and simply put delivers easily the best performance of his career. For all the regular guy affectations that he puts out there, the easy smile hides a great deal of pain. Wallace’s wariness of praise is captured nicely by Segel, who shows Wallace at once embracing his fame and shying away from it. He’s a complicated character and Segel fleshes him out nicely. Although it’s way early, I can see Segel getting some Best Actor buzz later on in the year for this.

Eisenberg I had more problems with. Watching a movie with Jesse Eisenberg in it is the cinematic equivalent of pounding down twenty espressos in a row; you feel nervous and jittery just watching him. Eisenberg’s characters often have a bundle of tics, and an undercurrent of meanness, even when Eisenberg is playing genuinely nice guys. Lipsky doesn’t seem to be; he is interested more in the story than in the person he’s writing about and in that manages to objectify his subject rather than understand him. I admit that is something journalists have a tendency to do and Eisenberg is to be commended for capturing that element of the character and bringing it to life, even though it is sure to make audiences feel antipathy towards Lipsky. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching Jesse Eisenberg more than David Lipsky; I didn’t get the same impression from Segel.

The movie has a bit of a bittersweet air to it, particularly since we know Wallace’s fate going in. This isn’t about a brilliant author, tormented in life, committing suicide; this is more about the image we project, how we fight to keep it, even if it doesn’t necessarily jibe with who we are. Wallace is portrayed as being obsessed with how others saw him; I can relate to that as I have that tendency myself to really want to be liked, both on a personal level and as a writer. Not that there are many people who want to be disliked; there’d be something sociopathic about that.

At one point, as Wallace he says he likes to be alone; he doesn’t want a lot of people around him. I can understand that; I’m pretty shy with people I don’t know well myself and I have a tendency to prefer spending time on my laptop keyboard writing than in interacting with others most times, but if you’re going to be a writer, if you’re going to be a good writer, you need social interaction. Without it, you’re like a chef in a restaurant  whose menu has only one item on it. You might get really good at that one item, but at the end of the day, you’re limiting yourself. I am admittedly unfamiliar with Wallace’s work and while I definitely intend to sit down with some of his books in the very near future,  I don’t share Lipsky’s assessment that reading him will be like meeting him. He seemed to be far too private a person for that to be true.

REASONS TO GO: Bravura performance by Segel. Real insight to the loneliness of artists. Melancholy and celebratory.
REASONS TO STAY: Eisenberg plays Eisenberg.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some sexual references and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get Wallace’s dogs to pay attention to Eisenberg and Segel, meat was sewn into their clothing. In the scene where the dogs come into Lipsky’s room to wake him up, peanut butter was smeared on Eisenberg’s face so that the dogs would come in and lick his face.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Last Days
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Young Adult


Young Adult

Mavis prepares for battle.

(2011) Black Comedy (Paramount) Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolf, Jill Eikenberry, Richard Bekins, Mary Beth Hurt, Kate Nowlin, Jenny Dare Paulin, Rebecca Hart, Louisa Krause, Elizabeth Ward Land, John Forest. Directed by Jason Reitman

 

We are all of us a product of our upbringing, for better or for worse. We are shaped in ways that aren’t just shaped by our parents and our homes but also our peers, our schools, our experiences. The people we are can be traced in a direct line to the people we used to be in high school, sometimes for the better but not always. Sometimes we’re exactly the same.

Mavis Gary (Theron) is a writer of young adult fiction. To be more accurate, she’s a ghost writer of young adult fiction. She has taken over an immensely popular series of books set in an exclusive prep school and has presided over a successful run which is now coming to an end. In fact, she’s in the midst of writing the final book in the series.

Mavis lives in the big city – Minneapolis, not New York – but originally hails from a small town in Minnesota called Mercury. She fled the small town environs the first chance she got and she has no real desire to return – in fact, she hasn’t been home in years.

However all that changes when she gets a notice that her ex in Mercury – Buddy Slade (Wilson) – has just become a daddy. He has married Beth (Reaser), a classmate of theirs while Mavis has been married and divorced and now goes on a series of dates that end up in unfulfilling sex after a fair amount of liquid courage has been consumed. She gets it in her head that Buddy is trapped in a marriage that is sapping his soul and that she needs to go to Mercury and rescue him.

With her poor neglected dog in tow, she drives to the despised Mercury. While there she runs into Matt Freehauf (Oswalt) whose locker used to adjoin hers. She doesn’t really remember him until he brings out that he was the victim of a hate crime – a group of jocks who believed he was gay brutally beat him, shattering his leg and mangling his penis. It was big news…up until the moment the media found out that he wasn’t gay and so they lost interest. Apparently nobody cared that a short fat kid got the crap kicked out of him.

Matt and Mavis seem to be kindred spirits in  a way; although Mavis treats Matt like a toad, she respects that he tells her what he thinks and doesn’t kiss butt. For his part he figures out he has no shot with her anyway so he can afford to be direct.

He pleads with her that Buddy is happily married and in love with being a dad but Mavis is having none of it. She blows into town with all the finesse of cancer and inspiring twice the joy at her arrival. Most of the townspeople look a bit askance at her; she was the beautiful girl who left for the big city and made good – why the hell would she come back and ruin everything? But come back she does and ruin everything she tries to do.

Theron gives a terrific performance here. Mavis is distinctly unlikable and possibly even a little psychotic. She is self-obsessed to the point of mania and really doesn’t have a lot of empathy which you can read as “any.” Still, she manages to create a character that you can follow without liking, which is a neat trick that you can thank not only Theron but Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, the latter two who previously teamed on Juno.

Her chemistry with Oswalt is surprising. They are perhaps the ultimate of odd couples, but they do have a bond – the misfit who has been literally battered by life and the prom queen whose life has passed her by and whom, she suspects, happiness has also passed her by. Matt is positive that happiness has passed him by and he fills his hours with creating his own mash-up action figures and distilling his own bourbon, a hobby that meets with Mavis’ approval.

The problem here is that it’s sold as something of a black comedy but the awkward moments outnumber the funny ones. I guess my comedic sense is a bit too stone age for modern comedy but just creating a painfully awkward moment isn’t really enough to get me chuckling. Theron does a great job as Mavis but there are times you really want to punch her in the face.

I like that the ending didn’t take the easy way out with a typical Hollywood comeuppance. I also like that the movie is intelligently written, which is a certain box office kiss of death. Still in all, I can recommend the movie not without reservations but nonetheless worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Theron and Oswalt do stellar work. Nifty ending that isn’t too cliché.

REASONS TO STAY: As comedies go, not really funny. Mavis is a bit too unlikable at times.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and a bit of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mavis drives a Mini-Cooper in the movie. Theron also drove a Mini-Cooper in the movies once before, for The Italian Job.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d guess this works just as well at home as it does at the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

Contagion


Contagion

How is it that Marion Cotillard can still look so hot while trying to appear concerned?

(2011) Medical Drama (Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, Jennifer Ehle, John Hawkes, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Demitri Martin, Brian J. O’Connor, Chin Han. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

From time to time, the human population of this planet has been culled from everything from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu. It has been almost a century since our last plague; we’re about due for the next.

It takes just one person to start a plague. In this case, it’s Beth Emhoff (Paltrow). She has just returned home to Minneapolis after a trip to Hong Kong with a case of the flu. At first it’s just chalked up to jet lag, but she suddenly has a violent seizure and is rushed to the hospital. Within hours she is dead. On his way home from the hospital, her husband Mitch (Damon) is told his son is having a seizure. By the time he gets home, his son is already gone.

In the meantime, cases of the disease are sprouting up all over the place, from a bus in Tokyo to a small village in China to a home in Chicago. It seems that a pandemic is about to break out.

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, personified by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) are mobilizing their forces, sending Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) to Minneapolis to co-ordinate with Minnesota health officials while the World Health Organization sends Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard) to Hong Kong which is apparently ground zero. Both women soon find themselves in unexpected situations with potentially deadly consequences.

As more and more people get sick, things begin to break down. There is looting and riots as people demand answers and a cure. Doctors Ally Hextall (Ehle), David Eisenberg (Martin) and Ian Sussman (Gould) work feverishly to find the cure for this insidious disease which is so far resisting all known treatment. Meanwhile blogger Alan Krumwiede (Law) seeks to manipulate the crisis to his own advantage, fueling the panic that is already just below the surface. Mitch Emhoff is holed up in his home with his daughter Jory (Jacoby-Heron), watching supplies dwindle and terrified that he will lose his only surviving family member to the disease as her persistent boyfriend Andrew (O’Connor) repeatedly tries to get together with her physically. Will a cure be found before civilization completely collapses?

Soderbergh has shown a deft hand with ensemble casts in the Oceans trilogy but here he winds up with too many characters. Too many plotlines to really keep straight, so some his stars (not all of whom survive the movie by the way) are given extremely short shrift while other plotlines seem to go nowhere.

What he does do well is capture the realism of the situation. The movie was made with the co-operation of the CDC and while I’m not sure what, if any, of the film was actually filmed in CDC facilities, you get the sense that if they weren’t the filmmakers at least were granted access so they could find reasonable facsimiles.

You also get a sense that this is the way things would really go down, with lots of conflicting information going out, political in-fighting and finger-pointing as well as heroics by front line personnel who are trying to care for the sick and protect the healthy, not to mention a shady few who stand to profit by the misery of millions (I’m sure insurance companies will make out like bandits and the right will blame it all on Obamacare).

The stars deliver for the most part, particularly Damon who has to run through a gauntlet of emotions from disbelief to grief to anger to fear throughout the course of this movie. He rarely gets the kudos he deserves, but he’s a much better actor than he is often given credit for and for those who need proof of that, they need go no farther than his performance here.

Cotillard is given little to do but look concerned and beautiful and does both beautifully. Winslet does well in her role as a field representative of the CDC who is well and truly over her head to a crazy extent. Law is nefarious and snake-smooth as the blogger with ulterior motives.

The plot here follows standard medical thriller format; the difference here is that there is more emphasis placed on the procedures than on the patients. That’s a double-edged sword in that it gives us a unique viewpoint, but we rarely get to connect to the suffering of those affected by the disease in one way or another.

The scenes that show the rapid breakdown of society are the ones that held my attention the most. Sure, the scenes of scientific research had their fascination as well but I tend to swing my attention more towards the human than the technological or the bureaucratic. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many of those sorts of scenes as I would have liked so the movie scored fewer points than it might have, but still plenty to recommend it to most audiences.

REASONS TO GO: All-star cast and a good sense of realism. Fascinating look at the breakdown of society as social services become impossible.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and not enough plot.

FAMILY VALUES: The content is rather disturbing and there are a few choice words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Damon, Paltrow and Law last worked in the same film together in 1999 for The Talented Mr. Ripley. Law has no scenes with either Damon or Paltrow this time, however.

HOME OR THEATER: You’ll want to see this at home; trust me, once you see this you won’t want to be within miles of another human being.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: I Don’t Know How She Does It

A Serious Man


A Serious Man

You may think you're on top of the world, but you've still got to fix the antenna.

(2009) Dramedy (Focus) Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Adam Arkin, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolf, Jessica McManus, Alan Mandell, George Wyner, Michael Lerner, David Kang. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

There comes a time in all of our lives in which our suffering seems greatly magnified. We all experience the dark winter of our souls at some time or another. It’s enough to make even the least devout look heavenward and wonder why. Not all of us get to be Job, but most of us share in his troubles.

I’m sure Professor Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) would tend to agree with that. He’s a middle aged professor of physics, living a comfortable existence in a middle class subdivision in a Minneapolis suburb in the late 60s. He has applied for tenure and has been assured that there is no reason he shouldn’t get it. His son Danny (Wolf)  is about to undergo his bar mitzvah.

When we feel the weave of our lives is at its strongest is usually when it unravels. His wife Judith (Lennick) wants a divorce. She no longer can take the lack of inertia in Larry’s life and has taken up with his best friend, Sy Ableman (Melamed). Personally, I think if your best friend is named Sy Ableman you’ve got problems to begin with.

His son is having difficulties concentrating in class and has been experimenting with reefer. His daughter Sarah (McManus) is stealing money to save for a nose job. His ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Arthur (Kind) has taken up residence on his couch (when Sy and Judith urge him to leave their home and take up in a local motel, Arthur comes along with him as a sort of hideous luggage set Larry can’t get rid of) with a variety of ailments, including a cyst in need of drainage. Arthur believes he is close to uncovering the secret of the universe which apparently has to do with surviving without working.

A Korean student (Kang) who has clearly failed a test offers a bribe which turns into a means of blackmail. Larry’s oversexed neighbor who sunbathes in the nude has become not so much a sexual fantasy so much as a sexual nightmare that further emasculates him. To top it all off, the tenure which seemed to be a sure thing is now in jeopardy due to anonymous libelous letters that urge the university regents not to grant Larry tenure. It’s enough to make Larry go scrambling first for the shrink, then to the rabbis. Yes, plural.

The Coen Brothers are some of the most gifted filmmakers of the past 20 years, with a string of movies that aren’t just well-made but are among my favorites. Certainly when you go down the list of their films – Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men – and that’s just a partial list, there’s bound to be at least one or two that you’re fond of as well.

Here, the Coens explore their own inner Jewishness and certainly their own background as they were raised in a similar suburb of Minneapolis during the same time period here. I’m not sure if Aaron is a surrogate for the brothers but he might very well be.

I’ve always admired the Coens for their quirky sensibility and their offbeat humor and both qualities are in evidence here, to even greater effect. Those who prefer their storytelling done straight up will probably find the Coens an unpleasant taste, too Dr. Pepper in a world of colas.

This is a movie to my mind that is about the nature of suffering and the sheer randomness of it. It is appropriate that this is set in a Jewish background for if any ethnic group knows suffering, it’s them. There is plenty of sardonic humor but also a sense of bewilderment as if nobody involved with the movie can quite believe what’s going on in it.

Stuhlbarg, who has mostly been a stage actor throughout his career, does an extremely solid job here in what is essentially his first motion picture lead role. He captures the sense of being adrift on a sea of troubles with nothing but a life preserver to keep him afloat. Mostly he is surrounded by character actors whose names you may or may not recognize but whose faces you’ll immediately know.

There is a whole lot of kvetching in the movie, perhaps more than is necessary but then I’m just a goyim and I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to get it. That’s all right, too. This isn’t essential to the Coen Brothers catalogue in the sense of entertainment, but if you really want to get to know the filmmakers, I suspect this will be the film that comes closest to allowing you in. As Roger Ebert said, this is clearly a labor of love and one that would only be allowed to be made by someone who has won an Oscar. The movie is filled with parables that don’t really clarify anything but then, most parables were meant to be mysterious anyway.

WHY RENT THIS: While offbeat, Coen Brothers movies tend to be well-made and interesting, and this one is no exception. Stuhlbarg, a relative unknown, gives a solid performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very rooted in its Jewishness, which may make certain parts of the movie difficult to follow or relate to for non-Jews. The movie also meanders a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, a certain amount of sexuality and even a bit of brief nudity. Some of the thematic elements will go zooming over the heads of younger teens and the less mature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filming in Bangkok during the September 19, 2006 coup d’état. The armory department claims they fired the only shots of the coup. Filming was only interrupted for six hours.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an educational tool that helps with the Yiddish and Hebrew phrases that are peppered throughout the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31.4M on an unreported production budget; given what appear to be a pretty meager budget, I’d say the movie was probably a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Pink Panther 2