A SERIOUS MAN
starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick
written and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
THE INVENTION OF LYING
starring Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Jonah Hill, Tina Fey
written and directed by Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson
CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY
directed by Michael Moore
by Ian Pugh The appropriate, even inevitable capper to a loose nihilist trilogy following No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man is so utterly dark and dire that it almost plays like self-reflexive parody--an adaptation of Barton Fink's "beautiful" wrestling script, perhaps, or an honest-to-gosh realization of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Preston Sturges imagined once upon a time. Even the title is sarcastic. This is a scenario whereby life-altering misfortunes fall with ridiculous timing and precision; the dismal tides and the coming storms are now damningly literal, such that it's nearly impossible to take it with any semblance of seriousness. In making time during the game to explain Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, our hapless Job, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), offers, if you haven't surmised, a fairly concise metaphor for everything that happens in this film. Why are the Coens being so on-the-nose about themes they've lately approached with a legitimately intimidating brilliance? Maybe it's because their mordant philosophy has amassed unprecedented critical and commercial acceptance over their last two pictures. Maybe the idea that anyone could actually commiserate with them strikes the Coens as so terrifying that the time has come to cast such notions aside in the most punishing way possible.1 For now, anyway.
They're drifting inward, that's for sure, telling a transparently-autobiographical tale of Jewish Midwesterners in a late-'60s landscape largely untouched by flower power. Larry is up for tenure, but he's having difficulty overcoming a number of personal hurdles: his wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce in order to be free to live with a too-friendly widower (Fred Melamed); he's stuck tending to his idiot-savant brother (Richard Kind), who keeps getting into legal trouble; the bills are stacking up; and he's struggling to resist a bribe from one of his students. Seeking guidance from his local rabbis, Larry hears only circuitous morality tales accompanied by the occasional lecture on the wonder of parking lots, throwing him deeper into despair. That's more or less the film in a nutshell, all pitch-black anti-humour and cries for help unheeded. Dubious hope for the future lies in Larry's son Danny (Aaron Wolff), whose greatest concerns are pot, bullies, and "F-Troop". Danny gets stoned for his bar mitzvah in a sequence that undoubtedly paints adulthood with a palpable sense of doom, though if you have to grow up and face the kind of music this movie is playing, you might as well go out shit-faced. (Naturally, the same trick doesn't work for fully-grown Larry, as he partakes in the magic herb and retreats into his fantasies to no avail.) A Serious Man's near-incessant use of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" is the clear thematic centrepiece: a klaxon call announcing the changing social tides, promising relief through tuning in and dropping out. And yet, hidden barely beneath the surface is a fruitless search for peace-of-mind.
No Country for Old Men is about what you don't know; Burn After Reading is about what you didn't know; A Serious Man, I suppose, is about what you can't know. When the film's paragon of pastoral brilliance is eventually revealed to be as lost as the rest of us--his own profundity cut straight from an all-too-familiar source--it's none-too-subtly implied that if there is a God, whatever He's saying to us is so damnably indecipherable that we're better off not dwelling on it. It's rather obviously self-flagellating--violently masturbatory and mercilessly critical of the material the Coens produce, the relentlessness of the nihilism they concoct. The grimmest personal catastrophes, it must be said, may occur within Larry's morbid imagination; are the filmmakers suggesting that they're going too far? Whatever the case, it manages to touch on a universal sense of existential grief, and from there somehow works with eloquence and grace. It works so well, in fact, that there's something almost vulgar about trying to articulate it.
The Invention of Lying does its damnedest to solve that "problem," though, and predictably fails. Ricky Gervais and his co-writer/co-director, Matthew Robinson, have conceived of a world where mankind has gone its entire existence without knowing the concept of a lie, which likewise means no fiction, no theatre, and products created strictly with efficiency in mind. More to the comedic point, these characters are without self-preservative tact--more Schizopolis than Liar Liar, really, as they accept whatever passes through their minds and state it accordingly. Then, newly-jobless and late with the rent, something snaps within the mind of Mark Bellison (Gervais): it suddenly dawns on him that he'd be better off not telling the truth about his bank account. And so it goes that he discovers ways to improve his life through the power of falsehood. Because society has long accepted that everyone is honest, people blindly follow Mark's lead, no matter how outrageous or contradictory his claims. Curses and blessings follow when, in an attempt to comfort his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan), Mark accidentally invents Heaven and, by association, religion.
Filled to the brim with extraneous cameos (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman) Gervais couldn't squeeze into "The Office" or "Extras", The Invention of Lying eventually becomes the Woody Allen equivalent2 to Year One, hoping that a sharp tongue will distract from its thematic uselessness. With everyone in the world eager to know more about his "Man in the Sky," Mark is soon incidentally cast in the roles of Moses and Jesus--the latter introduced in an ironic, embarrassingly-telegraphed visual joke that is, frankly, beneath Gervais's considerable talent for snark. That gag is, alas, only too indicative of most of what this film has to say. Although there are a handful of moments genuinely shocking enough to stick in the mind (including a newspaper headline that must be seen to be believed), its scattershot indictment of religion just feels desperate after a while. A Serious Man plumbs the depths of spirituality and how it relates to identity, while The Invention of Lying merely condescends to anyone who would foolishly subscribe to faith. Sadder still, its satiric raison d'être is eventually abandoned altogether in favour of a romantic plot that sees Mark seeking out beautiful Anna (Jennifer Garner, more or less reprising her desperate-mother role from Juno), despite his being "fat with a snub nose" and therefore unfit for breeding in a brutally frank world. An exploration of religion's long-term effects is left ignored, but judging books by their covers and, uh, eugenics, I guess--they're bad, right? Good to know.
Naturally, Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story also seeks to right some wrongs by screaming at the naked emperors of social convention (right down to the ideological perversion of Jesus), but there's something self-consciously routine about it. Twenty years after Roger & Me, Moore comes full circle in making a target out of the system by returning to families evicted from their homes and paying a visit to GM post-bankruptcy; at first, Capitalism seems a bitter "told you so." Where can he go from there? Somewhere, it turns out: The segment detailing our recent financial snafus and the subsequent string of bailouts is possibly the most concise and tightly-edited half-hour Moore has ever presented--and all the standard patter involving the troubles of relevant victims ("dead peasant" insurance is an understandably major point of discussion) and naïve found-footage from the '50s leads up to that point. It's the idea that this mess reaches deeper and much farther back than sub-prime loans into the culture of materialism itself--culminating with the predictable absolution of the parties responsible. It's not rage, exactly, but faulting the free market cuts to the heart of Moore's theses up to this point, and Capitalism somehow bypasses impotent liberal tongue-clucking, projecting instead a sense of resignation. Is it a coincidence that it happens to be his best film in years?
It's true that Moore has always sabotaged his most cogent arguments with lame attempts at humour, yet here, when he brings his camera to the bailout recipients' buildings (complete with comic-book moneybags, or the intention of placing the CEOs under "citizen's arrest"), it feels like he's actively given up on motivating anyone and now regards his filmic efforts as glorified protest songs. (Following Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Capitalism is the second film this year to comment directly on the distracting stupidity of YouTube videos featuring cute cats. Maybe Moore's simply given up on culture altogether.) Does Moore straight-up argue for a conversion to socialism in his latest film? Sorta kinda. He pays particular attention to union strikes and companies that have adopted worker-based hierarchies, which are shot and scored with such delirious uplift that they begin to resemble employee training videos and--at the risk of sounding like a reactionary asshole--Soviet propaganda. Unlike in Sicko, however, the propositions for alternatives aren't rife with feel-good fallacies. The upside to Moore's clear outrage fatigue is that he's for once more interested in jumpstarting a conversation than in declaring himself a brilliant left-wing demagogue. Has it finally dawned on him that there aren't going to be any clear-cut answers to the questions he's asking? If, in all its harping on capitalistic corruption, the film is too shy about the basic human corruption that tends to fuck up a lot of good ideas, at least it has the nerve to say we're capable of being better people than we are. Originally published: October 7, 2009.
1. No, they're never going to make a sequel to The Big Lebowski. return
2. Gervais and Robinson certainly want you to make that connection from the opening credits sequence, typed out in a familiar white Windsor font on black title cards. With that in mind, are they trying to invoke the bland retro-future of Sleeper? Who cares? return