Saturday, October 10, 2009

Great endings: The Coens' A SERIOUS MAN and Mostow's SURROGATES

Comparisons of the biblical Job to the main character in the latest Coen brothers film strikes me as foolish, coming as they do from folk who either do not recall The Bible all that well, or have by this point become so namby
-pamby that they mis-
take mere problems for plagues. A SERIOUS MAN, one of the better Coen Bros efforts in an oeuvre of generally worthwhile product, is a serious movie that also manages to be pretty funny in a -- no surprise -- dark manner. Its lead character, beautifully limned by Michael Stuhlbarg (below), who can also be seen to good advantage in the current Afterschool (if that one's still with us theatrically), is a sweet putz who just can't stand up for himself and so gets trounced with grating but often amusing regularity.

Along the way, viewers get a lesson -- a very negative one -- in the Jewish religion. This is fine with me, as I hold no truck with any organized religion, but I can imagine others of that faith getting their panties in quite a twist. Setting their film in the Minnesota surburbia of the 60s results in the brothers providing some spot-on nostalgia involving clothes, cars, home decor and mores. More than that, however, is the nagging sense, from the very first scene, set in a European shtetl of a century ago, that Jews, as do all "believers," are ever willing to put themselves and their families at risk because of the peculiar and nitwit combination of faith and tradition. Fair or not, the Coens seem to put the blame more on the wives than the husbands, though really, it's the rabbis who are held up to the most ridicule -- until the penultimate scene when one has to wonder if the oldest among these maybe does have a shred of wisdom. Even if it's the sort that arrives in tandem with senility.

Here, as in their previous and award-laden movie, the Coens (above, with Joel on the left) still love to leave out important information, which we eventually learn anyway, although two seconds of visuals earlier would have saved twice the dialog and visuals later. But this is a paltry complaint. A Serious Man is worth seeing, thinking about and discussing. It offers plenty of surface entertainment along with consistent depth, and its finale is simply stunning: quiet, brimming and full of rage.

SURROGATES, on the other hand, though it has a nice premise and an absolutely socko ending, manages to dawdle and meander along its route until you find yourself growing sleepy. Its running time is not that long, so it ought to grab us and hold us via an ascending pace. Instead, director Jonathan Mostow, despite a couple of OK action sequences, loses focus and fritters away the possibili-
ties in this story of a time not far off when robot drones, made in the image and likeness of us (but much younger, sexier and better looking), live our lives for us -- in the workplace and the bedroom, among other locations. As usual, however, there's that fly in the ointment, which Bruce Willis, playing both a grizzled cop and his CGI-affected, full-head-of-hair robot self, seems to notice more than most of
the movie's other characters.

These are played by Radha Mitchell, Rosamunde Pike, Ving Rhames and James Cromwell, among others, and the actors lend their charm and looks (in the ladies' case) and strong personalities (in the gentlemen's) to help the movie along. That ending is -- visually, especially -- a won-
der, and the last line, spoken by a TV newscaster is a smart and subtle doozy. You'll prob-
ably want to see Serious Man soon but, should you have a big-screen TV, Surrogates won't lose much on DVD.

Very late apologies to the Coen Bros for having spelled their name wrong (with an "h") in this post over the past year. It is now corrected. Having no editor constantly looking over your shoulder is not nearly the fun it's cracked up to be.  Good editors  are really useful.

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