Friday, 11 December 2009

Suburban Captivity of a Schlemiel

It’s 1967. Woodstock is two years off, and Betty Crocker is still queen of the ’burbs. Larry Gopnik is a schlemiel, a loser, a junior professor of math at an inconsequential midwestern college, who lives with his mutton-dressed-as-lamb wife and teenage kids in a banal suburban bungalow, lost in the flatlands of Minnesota. The wife takes up with a cloyingly deeper local widower, his daughter rifles his wallet to pay for a nose job at 14, his spotty inconsequential son, a chip off the old block, starts getting into trouble at Hebrew school. His brother Arthur, an embarrassing deadhead, moves into his bedroom as his wife moves out. The Book of Larry, in some ways, mirrors the Book of Job, but shallower. Larry is paralysed by his own conservatism, pinned to a card in his own safe zone but too fearful to flap his wings, let alone fly away.

Our hero manages to add troubles to his inconsequential life without adding depth as a student tries to bribe him and hate mail starts rolling in to the tenure committee, along with lawyers bills, and an undertaker's account for his wife’s lover. Yet Larry cannot even get it together with his nude sunbathing next door neighbour. Time for a bit of wisdom. This is a job for a half decent rabbi: but all poor Larry can find is a fresh-faced stripling mini-rabbi as shallow and inconsequential as himself. The local sage is too busy thinking to help little losers like Larry. This film demonstrates the extent to which most religion is about framing and articulating, rather than answering, life’s questions.
Some will find the Coen bros latest crazy trip to shul obscure and unedifying, lacking in ribticklers even, but if you’re still with me, you may discover it to be delicious loonery. The bros play deftly with absurdity, on a small canvas, admirably restrained but with flashes of crafted slickness reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This is small scale tragicomedy, you understand, philosophical juggling with balls made by reconstituting the shavings of an inconsequential life.

Diehard Bros fans, like me, will give this one a special intimate place in their collections and occasionally pull it out on the long winter evenings to savour with a bottle of something. Shallow people will inevitably count this movie an oddity. In a way this is Woody Allen for the noughties, and like the more philosophical Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanours), the trixical bit that barely comes off is landing the plane at the end of the flight. In its own understated register it’s their funniest outing since the Big Lebowski, even if it falls a bit short of Raising Arizona. It may be all too contorted and surreal for some. If you find it so, consult your rabbi... Four and a half out of five stars.
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1 comment:

paul said...

On the basis of this review, +Alan, I shall make every effort to get out to see this. (A rare effort these days, with baby twins (and the three only-slightly-older ones still in the house).
Back in the day, when I used to teach Film at college, a Coen brothers series was always a special delight!...

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