(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