Sunday, 6 December 2009


27/11/09, Barbican

The Coen Brothers' latest. A social satire, a bleak comedy, not violent (except for one brief and shocking scene, part of our hero's nightmare, in which his idiot brother is shot by the redneck neighbours while attempting to escape in a canoe to Canada), but very black.

Michael Stuhlbarg (who is apparently a hot, Tony Award-winning New York stage actor who seems to have done very few movies) plays Larry Gopnik, a Minnesota maths professor in 1967 whose life falls apart. His wife announces she's leaving him for an oleaginous friend and throws him out; his teenage son is smoking pot and running away from the class bully and dope dealer to whom he owes $20 he can't pay, while insisting Dad fix the TV aerial so he can watch F-Troop; his hopeless brother Arthur is sleeping on the couch and getting into trouble with the authorities for gambling (and homosexuality?); he is being harrassed by the Columbia Record Club for payments on records he hasn't ordered (his son did). The official synopsis continues:

"While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry's chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person -- a mensch -- a serious man?"

This is the world of the Coen's own youth, lovingly recreated. The whole thing is a shaggy dog story which, just as things seem to be looking up (Sy Ableman is killed in a car crash, Larry's wife returns, his son gets his confiscated cassette player complete with Jefferson Airplane tape and $20 back from a senile rabbi, the third of the ones Larry tries to consult, Larry gets tenure) his doctor rings to tell him the X-ray we saw him having near the start of the film has shown something truly alarming.

It begins with a shaggy dog story: in 19th century Poland a traveller brings home an old man his wife insists is a dybbuk; the wife stabs the visitor; the visitor laughs, apparently unaffected, then rises to leave a couple of minutes later just as a blood stain starts to appear on his shirt front. So is he a dybbuk or not? We never find out.

And in the middle of the film is another wonderful shaggy dog story, told by the second rabbi, about a dentist who finds Hebrew letters spelling out the phrase "Help me" etched, out of sight, on the teeth of one of his (gentile) patients. Trying to solve the mystery drives the dentist bananas: he goes to the rabbi; the rabbi in effect tells him to forget it. The dentists recovers. Larry, who has gone to the rabbi himself for advice about his predicament and is sitting in the exact same chair as the dentist, asks about the teeth: "Who cares?" says the rabbi. From which I take it that the ways of God are impenetrable to man and that worrying about it only makes us unhappy. When Larry asks for concrete advice and puts forward some suggestions the only one that gets a positive response from the rabbi is trying to more good in the world: "Doing good? Can't hurt," the rabbi says.

Self-consciously clever, often funny, thought-provoking.

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