the truth is found to be lies: (l-r) Landecker and Stuhlbarg
in A Serious Man.
by Joel and Ethan Coen
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.
Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg
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.
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
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,
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.