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

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Waiting for “Superman”


Waiting for "Superman"

Anthony Black watches his future passing him by.

(2010) Documentary (Paramount Vantage) Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, Anthony Black, Daisy Esparza, Bianca Hill, Bill Strickland, Randi Weingarten, Bill Gates, George Reeves, Francisco, Davis Guggenheim (voice). Directed by Davis Guggenheim

One of the few things both the left and the right agree on in this country is that the education system is broken, and very badly at that. Comparative test scores with students in other developed countries rank the United States near the bottom in math, science and reading comprehension. However, we are ranked first in one category; student confidence. Thank God for all those positive self-image programs implemented in the 90s!

Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director for An Inconvenient Truth, returns to the subject that he first visited back in 2001 with the television documentary The First Year. In that documentary, he focused on teachers going into the trenches in inner city schools back in 1999. With the “No Child Left Behind” program having run eight years out of its ten and unlikely to reach its goals, Guggenheim decided to look at the problem from the other side – from the students’ perspective. 

He chooses five of them – Daisy, Bianca, Anthony, Francisco (all from poor ethnic neighborhoods) and Emily (from a middle class Silicon Valley neighborhood). Their stories are troubling – and all too common. All five of them have academic promise; Daisy wants to be a veterinarian while Anthony likes math. They all have parents (in some cases they are the children of single parents) that are singularly involved with their education, helping with homework, assisting them with reading, fully invested in the process. The trouble is that all of the parents know that they are fighting a losing battle.

Many schools, particularly in the inner cities but also elsewhere, have turned into what are termed dropout factories. They are unable and in some cases, unwilling to give their students the education they need to be successful in college. With each passing year, kids fall further and further behind until they simply drop out. Even if they do beat the odds and somehow manage to graduate, they are woefully unprepared for college and spend their freshman year taking remedial courses to try and catch up, and very often, they simply never do.

Guggenheim asks the valid question whether the neighborhoods make the schools bad, or the schools make the neighborhoods bad. It’s a fair question; certainly when a single school over a 40 year period drops 30,000 high school dropouts in a neighborhood, that’s going to make a dent.

But why are schools so bad? This is where I think the film drops the ball a little bit, seeming to oversimplify the issue. According to Guggenheim, it boils down to bad teachers and the inability of school districts to fire them, due to issues of tenure. The documentary asserts that the powerful teacher unions have made sinecures of their jobs, leading to a culture that the job is the teacher’s right, rather than a privilege. In New York City, teachers who are undergoing disciplinary hearings for reasons as varied as excessive lateness to work to sexual abuse are all made to spend their days in a waiting room reading newspapers and playing cards – at their full salary – while they await a disciplinary hearing. That wait lasts months, sometimes up to three years and costs Big Apple taxpayers more than $65 million a year.

There is hope, however – the knight charging to the rescue, as Guggenheim sees it, is charter schools. These are schools that have been created by communities independently of the school district, allowing the administrations to hire excellent teachers at increased salaries with merit bonuses and by allowing the teachers to actually teach rather than simply follow an antiquated lesson plan. However, there are very limited numbers of openings at these chartered schools, and a whole lot of parents wanting their kids to fill them, so according to law, lotteries must be conducted to fairly select which students fill those spots. Literally, the future of these kids hangs on a lottery pick.  

There are heroes too, like Geoffrey Canada, a crusading educator who became fed up with a system that resisted change, and went on to found a school in the worst part of Harlem and immediately set graduation rates and test scores that were better than even the charter schools. There’s also Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the Washington D.C. school system who took on the unions over tenure, and closed down 21 schools in the district. When she proposed a contract that would give the teachers the option of choosing a small pay increase and keeping tenure, or a larger increase with merit bonuses that could wind up raising teacher compensation into six figures, the union wouldn’t even let their rank and file vote on it. I guess they knew how that vote would turn out.

For my part, I think the movie raises some very important points, but I’m not sure they’re really seeing the entire problem. For one thing, I have to wonder if charter school students perform better because they have motivated parents invested enough in their kids’ education to fight to get them into those schools?  Would the test scores be as high if there were children with parents who were unable or unwilling to put as much time in with their kids?

Also, I don’t think that the film addresses a very crucial subject. While there is a high emphasis placed on the need for teacher accountability, it doesn’t do a lot to look at student accountability. In an atmosphere where the attention of young people is taken by video games, smart phones, surfing the internet, cable television and online social networking, school can’t really compete with these entertainments. Getting kids to understand the need for education is crucial and having a son who has been through the public school system, I can tell you that the issues he had were partially of his own making.  

However, I also know the schools failed my son. The administration put a label on him early on as an underachiever and tracked him with remedial kids. While he always excelled in tests, he had a bit of a lazy streak when it came to homework. The school’s solution was to put him in an environment where he was guaranteed to be bored, and once that happen, the system lost him. He is in college now but it hasn’t been easy for him and that he has fought back and taken charge of his future has made me a very proud papa.

What is important about this movie is that it starts a dialogue. There’s no doubt that our education system needs serious fixing, and sometimes we look at the problem, throw up our hands and say “It’s just too big to be fixed.” The movie shows us that isn’t true; with the involvement of parents and concerned citizens all over the country, we can make a difference and with our children’s future – and indeed, the continued economic health of the United States – in the balance, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The grim truth is that statistically, we are no longer producing enough students proficient in math and science to fill the Silicon Valley-type jobs that demand those disciplines, and over the next ten years that gap is only going to widen. We are having to bring in students from India, China and other emerging nations who have invested a great deal in their education system and are churning out capable students at a rate the U.S. once did. We are on the brink of becoming a second rate nation, and fixing this crisis in education is the best way of preventing that from happening.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most urgent issues in the United States gets thoughtful treatment; while you may not necessarily agree with all of the filmmaker’s conclusions, there are at least some places to begin the dialogue on how to fix our educational system.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie isn’t terribly complementary to teachers unions and those who believe in them may find the movie insulting.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some kids may find the themes difficult to comprehend, but this is perfectly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Those who bought tickets in advance from the film’s website can get a free download of the John Legend song that is played during the closing credits.

HOME OR THEATER: While on a viewing level this isn’t the kind of cinematography that begs for the big screen, the issue is important enough to motivate me to urge viewers to see it in theaters.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Nowhere Boy