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When the truth is found to be lies: (l-r) Landecker and Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man.

Make ’em Laugh

By Shawn Stone

A Serious Man

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

What’s funny? That’s a question that comes up often with the cinema of the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, who take delight in making us laugh, and then, alternately, making us choke on another “gag.” Take Fargo: body in a wood chipper? Hilarious. Slapstick chase with a kidnap victim who happens to be a sweet, suburban housewife? Hilarious, but then—not so much. Or Barton Fink: a drunken, Faulkner-esque has-been writer warbling “Old Black Joe?” Comedy gold. A severed head in a box? Funny, until you realize whose head it is.

Their last two films have been pretty straightforward comedies, however. Burn After Reading was a series of comic riffs on lying and role playing. And the new one, A Serious Man, is a hilarious extended riff on the Book of Job. (Maybe.)

Set in 1967, in the suburban Minnesota Jewish milieu from which the filmmakers sprang, A Serious Man follows bewildered physics teacher and middle-class dad Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) as he is beset by a series of disasters. His marriage is falling apart, and his job is shaky. He also doesn’t understand the changing mores of the world around him. When he goes up on his roof to fix the antenna so his ungrateful teenage son (Aaron Wolff) can watch F Troop, the sight of his comely neighbor Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) sunbathing nude causes him to faint.

That son is an interesting character. He’s selfish and does everything wrong, but reaps rewards. (And his passion for Jefferson Airplane provides the film’s soundtrack, as well as a great gag late in the film.) His luck seems to wax as his father’s luck wanes—until the very end.

Gopnick the elder’s reaction to each ratcheting up of his distress is to shut down emotionally, and then go ask a rabbi for guidance. The rabbis prove decidedly unhelpful. Our reaction to each ratcheting up of his distress is to laugh, because the Coens’ brutal comic timing is irresistible, and because Michael Stuhlbarg plays the part so straight, it’s fun watching him get bent.

Let me qualify: The reaction of roughly half the audience was to experience A Serious Man as a comedy. The other half found nothing to laugh at, at all—they were probably as bewildered as the protagonist.

The Coens’ don’t bring any of their stock company along for this ride, to good effect. With the exceptions of Adam Arkin and Richard Kind, most of the actors are unknowns.

Will you find A Serious Man funny? If you think that a character having to constantly drain the cyst on his neck would seems like a good running gag, the movie will slay you.

Pioneer Woman

Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

Directed by Aviva Kempner

Gertrude Berg was a radio and TV pioneer who created the first sitcom, a popular, long-running show called The Goldbergs. The show was modeled loosely after her own life: Gertrude played Molly, a wife and mother who talked to her neighbors—and the audience—by leaning out of a window. The show was groundbreaking for several reasons, one of them being that the characters were obviously and proudly Jewish. In fact, the show reached its highest audience shares during the rise of Nazism. After the war started, Gertrude defiantly broadcast a Passover ceremony that was received with an outpouring of emotion from all walks of Americans. Though in retrospect the show comes across like white bread soaked in warm milk, it didn’t shy away from topics such as the Holocaust, Freud, and economic uncertainty.

Written and directed by Jewish-history documentarian Aviva Kempner, Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is a nostalgic, almost worshipful overview of Gertrude and the warmly entertaining trail she blazed from vaudeville to radio to TV to Broadway. Winner of an Emmy and a Tony, along with the heart of a nation (FDR is quoted as having said “I didn’t end the Depression, Molly Goldberg did”) Gertrude’s hard work and talent is evident throughout, and most of the accolades are easily substantiated: that she created the benevolent stereotype of the Jewish mother as a rotund, compassionate matriarch who was always cooking or dispensing advice (“she was the Oprah of her day” is one repeated description); that she had a keen ear and eye for the comic foibles of ethnic, inner-city family life; and that she was an abundantly talented writer and actress. A brief clip from I Love Lucy—the show that finally eclipsed The Goldbergs in popularity—is just one example of how enormously influential her productions were. She was also an early, feminist mogul, selling spin-off products such as an apron line and a cookbook—even though Gertrude couldn’t cook because she worked from morning to night.

As a person, though, she remains shrouded by the dust of time. In filmed interviews, Gertrude was mostly in persona, and the interviewees—largely family members and co-workers—almost without exception have nothing but praise for that persona. That Gertrude placed her mother, a Holocaust survivor, in a mental institution, is only briefly mentioned, and her defiance during the McCarthy hearings did not go to the extent where it would’ve put her show out of business.

Though it could’ve benefited from more commentary from TV experts such as Norman Lear, Yoo Hoo is an informative look back at the early days of mainstream entertainment; Gertrude’s rise, from being her father’s employee at a Catskill hotel who put on skits for guests to an iconic entertainer, overcomes the film’s standardized formatting.

—Ann Morrow

Personality Crises

The Damned United

Directed by Tom Hooper

I took my son to see The Damned United on the mistaken idea that he’d enjoy seeing lots of English soccer action—you know, the thrill of victory and all that—and wound up inadvertently giving him a profound lesson in the agony of defeat. That’s because the movie, based on the book by David Pearce, doesn’t show much actual in-play footage, but it does reveal much about what factors drive, motivate and potentially destroy people, or, more accurately, a particular person, that being the late English football manager Brian Clough.

Unless you are an avowed fan of the beautiful game, and especially if you were raised in this country, you may not be aware of Clough, who in the 1960s and ’70s coached U.K. teams Hartelpools, Derby County and Nottingham Forest. Monty Python occasionally spoofed him, and Mohammed Ali once famously told him to back off on the self-aggrandizement which he felt was his bailiwick, and his alone. Clough was gifted and charismatic, ideal for the burgeoning cult of TV sports personality, but he was also pigheaded and blind to the effect of his blistering tongue. He regularly antagonized the team’s chairman and board of directors, and even chastised the fans for cheering only when their team was ahead. Clough’s ambition, lovingly depicted as the underdog Derby prepares to host the league-leading Leeds United, is to meet his rival/idol, Leeds’ manager Don Revie. Clough personally attends to scrubbing the locker rooms, shining the visiting coach’s nameplate, and readying a fine bottle of wine with two crystal goblets for the customary postgame drink. Not only does Revie (Colm Meaney) fail to shake Clough’s hand en route to the field, but he and his team make a hasty retreat following their win. The “dis” rankles deeply, to the point that it’s almost laughable the store that Clough set by this encounter.

Subsequently, Clough’s fervor to best Revie takes on in intensity, to the point that his assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) openly questions his decision making. Clough’s hubris is such that, following a disastrous drubbing of Derby by Leeds, he volunteers his and Taylor’s resignations, and is truly shocked when the board accepts. From the wreckage of his career (and his and Taylor’s longstanding association), Clough goes on to land the dream job, coaching Leeds when Revie is assigned to coach England’s World Cup team. But his contempt for Leeds’ dirty style of play comes to the fore in his first meeting with the team. As expected, things go from bad to worse, resulting in a swift dismissal and the closest thing to humble pie Clough likely has ever had to ingest.

The Damned United, directed by Tom Hooper from a first-rate script by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon), is a tour de force for Sheen, who struts across the screen like cock of the walk, an image that is accentuated by his carefully done pompadour. It’s a flashy performance, but only in the way it projects Clough’s bigger-than-life personality, which somehow compels as much as it repels. Sheen allows us glimpses into his character’s humanity. Spall, in the key role of Taylor, serves as much more than dramatic foil to the lead character, as we realize early on the enormous gifts he brought to the management partnership. Jim Broadbent, as Derby’s taciturn chairman, has some excellent moments, and Colm Meaney, as Revie, gives meat and power to a relatively small, but essential, role.

I would have liked to have seen a bit more of the match, although we get the sense of the camaraderie and life’s passion that the English put into their teams. The scenes move back and forth in time, over about six years, a device that detracts from the movie’s momentum. Nevertheless, The Damned United is an excellent depiction of the perils of ambition and obsession.

—Laura Leon


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