CINEMA: That Barton Fink Feeling

a_serious_man_poster_lg.jpgA SERIOUS MAN (2009, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, 105 minutes, U.S.)

The re-focusing of purpose that the Coen Brothers exhibited so breathtakingly in No Country For Old Men continues with their latest film, A Serious Man. An Old Testament fable set in a square Jewish suburb circa 1970, this black comedy of one man’s weakening faith has many of the elements of a classic Coen’s film: garish period detail, fleeting interactions with the grotesquely plain and a normal guy done in by the wickedness of fate.  Yet with its exceptionally tight script, theCoens’ humor hasn’t been pushed to such existential heights since the similarly baroque Hell created in eighteen years ago in Barton Fink.

A Shakespearean stage actor with little film work to his credit, Michael Stuhlbarg is a revelation as Larry Gopnik, a suburban Job forced over the space of a few weeks to suffer through ever-deepening levels of humiliation. A community college science professor whose tenure is in question, Larry has kids who don’t appreciate him, a wife who is cuckolding him and an unemployable brother with a leaky subcutaneous boil sleeping on the living room sofa. Needless to say, Larry is having a deep crisis of faith and Stuhlberg’s anxious performance makes it stick like a sweaty undershirt.

Why can’t Larry have the unshakable faith of his ancestors, one of which is shown in an opening sequence plunging a knife deep into the chest of a suspected evil spirit?  With no friend in which to confide, Larry barton-fink-posters.jpgattempts on three occasions to talk to a Rabbi.  If you’re wondering why the Coens’ haven’t made a film about their Jewish heritage before, their depiction of the synagogue’s inscrutable and/or clueless spiritual leaders might give you an idea.  Particularly amusing is the smiley junior rabbi, Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg ), who throws open the curtains to show Larry that inspiration can be found right out in the parking lot.  His eyes then dart nervously out at the window’s view, searching fruitlessly for something that could pass as inspirational. When it comes to guidance, Larry is definitely alone in the desert. Larry’s waning faith may even be affecting his son, who stays holed up in his room, getting stoned and watching F Troop, while forsaking his Bar Mitzvah studies.

The Coens have created spiritually searching characters like Larry before, most memorably the disillusioned screenwriter Barton Fink, who ends that film clutching a package he hasn’t the nerve to unwrap. What makes A Serious Man so surprising is that the Coens actually dare to unwrap the package at the film’s terrifically open ending. In its final note, Larry’s question changes from “Is God dead?” to “Is it wise to go around waving your arms, clamoring for the Almighty’s attention?”

where_the_wild_things_are_xlg_2.jpgNEW YORK TIMES: Most of the snuffling, growling beasts that roam and often stomp through “Where the Wild Things Are,” Spike Jonze’s alternately perfect and imperfect if always beautiful adaptation of the Maurice Sendak children’s book, come covered in fur. Some have horns; most have twitchy tails and vicious-looking teeth. The beasts snarl and howl and sometimes sniffle. One has a runny nose. Yet another has pale, smooth skin and the kind of large, wondering eyes that usually grow smaller and less curious with age. This beast is Max, the boy in the wolf costume who one night slips into the kind of dream the movies were made for. Max, played by the newcomer Max Records, is the pivotal character in this intensely original and haunting movie, though by far the most important figure here proves to be Mr. Jonze. After years in the news, the project and its improbability — a live-action movie based on a slender, illustrated children’s book that runs fewer than 40 pages, some without any words at all — are no longer a surprise. Even so, it startles and charms and delights largely because Mr. Jonze’s filmmaking exceeds anything he’s done in either of his inventive previous features, “Being John Malkovich” (1999) and “Adaptation” (2002). With “Where the Wild Things Are” he has made a work of art that stands up to its source and, in some instances, surpasses it. MORE

VICELAND: In the five years since we’ve become friends with Spike Jonze, he has never not been working on spike-jonze.thumbnail.jpghis movie adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. It’s been a life-consuming, soul-questioning, long-day’s-journey-into-night, half-decade quest for Spike to make this film according to his very specific vision for it, and it’s been hugely inspiring to watch it grow and evolve. And now, like a beautiful little baby crowning the rim of the birth canal or a ripe, juicy tomato plumply twisting on the vine, Where the Wild Things Are is about to burst forth into the world. It’s like no film we’ve seen before, and we can’t wait to witness how the general moviegoing public reacts to it. Vice founder Shane Smith went to London this summer to visit Spike as he completed effects work on WTWTA there. Shane was en route to Africa to film for VBS.TV, and he was reeling from the gargantuan doses of malaria medication he’d been taking. Before he met up with Spike, he attended a private viewing of Where the Wild Things Are. Then he rushed straight into Spike’s arms and, overcome with emotion, sobbed awhile. And then the two of them sat in Shane’s hotel room and talked all about Spike’s new movie, life, and love. MORE

PREVIOUSLY: Lost In Adaptation?

the_office_season_5_dvd.jpgCINEMABLEND: This week, I was able to piece together what’s changed about The Office over the past several years. Removing Jim and Pam from the office just put it so plainly in my face that I can’t believe I didn’t realize it fully until just now. Or maybe I did, and I kind of didn’t want to admit it. When it started, The Office was a show about regular people like you and me working in a dead-end job at a generic company. We had the folks upstairs representing the white collar workers, and the folks in the warehouse downstairs for the blue collars among us. They were eccentric and funny, but they were us. Yes, Dwight was a bit more out there, but even he was still somewhat believable back then. Only Michael, really, was too much to take right from the beginning. But wasn’t that the whole point of the show. Here’s these regular people working in this regular office with this outrageously clueless boss. And there was Jim and Pam. The most normal of the bunch, the ones we truly connected with. MORE

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