With the New York Film Critics Online annual awards meeting only a couple months away, I decided to make time in my busy schedule for some mainstream movies. Instead of my usual fare of strident leftwing documentaries and neorealist fictional movies from semi-peripheral countries, I decided to check out some of the Hollywood blockbusters now showing in New York. Of course, this does not mean going to something like “Couples Retreat”, which for me is an experience more dreaded than cataract surgery.
Instead I decided to check out the latest movies by “edgy” directors who started out as indies. I fully expected to dislike all of them but was pleasantly surprised by Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”, a movie that I will review separately in conjunction with an obscure movie about the General’s plot directed by G.W. Pabst, who was referred to knowingly in Basterds. As you may know, much of the action takes place in a Parisian movie theater commandeered by the Nazi high command that speaks reverentially of Pabst and actor Emil Jannings.
The other two did not pass muster. Stephen Soderberg’s “The Informant!” was based on a book about Mark Whitacre, a whistle blower who helped the FBI nail top executives at Archer-Daniels-Midland involved in price-fixing while he was embezzling millions from the company himself. Despite the nominally socio-economic backdrop, the movie is much more about Whitacre’s compulsive lying. If you liked Leonard DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can”, then you might like this one. I had no use for either film since the central characters were so off-putting and difficult to identify with. Why spend eleven dollars to see movies about characters that are so much like those who are running the country?
As off-putting as Mark Whitacre was, he was a Shakespearean hero in comparison to Larry Gopnik, the anti-hero of the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man”. This is a reworking of the biblical tale of Job with Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor, dealing with unappreciative family members and the vicissitudes of getting tenure. Job, by comparison, loses all his possessions and his family members die. I guess the people who wrote the story of Job had an underdeveloped sense of irony, a sensibility that unites Soderberg, the Coen brothers, Tarantino and two other directors who are in the pantheon of Hollywood bankables today: Tim Burton and David Cronenberg. As a rule of thumb, you will not find them making movies that follow past conventions in terms of character and plot. When you enter their world, you are never sure whether you are watching comedy or tragedy since the directors tend to use their principal characters mainly as a foil for their own mixture of nihilism and postmodernist smirking. Now this can often be entertaining, but in the case of these two new films you get a sense that the style has built in limitations.
As I walked out of “A Serious Man”, I tried to explain to an old friend why it was so dissatisfying. The main character is totally passive and takes each indignity without much complaint, even to the point of moving into a ratty motel on orders from his wife who has found a new lover. Since the heart of drama is struggle, I explained to him, it is a big letdown when the hero of a movie is such a “schlemiel”, a Yiddish term meaning loser. At least with the biblical Job, he knows how to make his own case forcefully before Yahweh:
When I say, My bed shall comfort me,
my couch shall ease my complaint;
then thou scarest me with dreams,
and terrifiest me through visions:
so that my soul chooseth strangling,
and death rather than my life.
I loathe it; I would not live alway:
let me alone; for my days are vanity.
What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him?
and that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him?
In some ways, “A Serious Man” demonstrates all the flaws of the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a reworking of Homer’s Odyssey. Without the grandeur of Homer’s characters, all you end up with is a kind of road movie that requires the talent of a Preston Sturges to pull off. Without a finely honed sense of comedy, the best that Coen brothers can come up with is characters that they can feel superior to while hoping that the audience can share the joke. In Preston Sturges’s Depression-era comedies, you cheer for the characters. Set in the same historical period, the characters of “O Brother, Where Art Thou” are involved with what film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls pop nihilism.
If it is impossible to conceive of “A Serious Man” in biblical terms, it is even more impossible to see it as satire about Jewish middle-class life. Unlike “Goodbye Columbus” or “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz”, there is a kind of surreal quality to the goings on in suburban Minneapolis that suggests David Lynch rather than Larry David. There are some laughs in the movie but they are mostly in the vein of a Kafka novel rather than the glorious traditions of Jewish comedy. Indeed, the main feeling you get from “A Serious Man” is that of a character waking up one morning and discovering that he has been turned into an insect. In the right hands, this could provide a bunch of yuks. In the case of “A Serious Man”, all you are left with is 105 minutes worth of cringing.
Turning now to the mess that Soderberg wrought, it should be obvious that he is obsessed with dissembling. From “Sex, Lies and Videotape”, his “indie” premier, to his pop confections in the Oceans 10, 11 and 12 series, he appears to enjoy writing about liars and con artists.
I wonder if Soderberg is subconsciously making a connection between conning people and movie making, something that was openly made by Orson Welles in “F is for Fake”, his excellent documentary about hoaxes, covering the artist Elmyr de Hory who cranked out fake “Picassos” or “Chagalls” for ill-gotten gain to Clifford Irving, the author of the infamous Howard Hughes memoir hoax. In one key passage, Welles tells us that he was no different from de Hory or Irving, especially when he unleashed his 1938 radio version of “War of the Worlds” on the gullible public.
One can certainly understand why Matt Damon was cast as Mark Whitacre. In both Soderberg’s Ocean series and the unforgettable “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, Damon is adept at acting as a liar, in a kind of Escherian funhouse mirror.
When we first meet Mark Whitacre, he seems the pinnacle of normalcy living in a comfortable house with an adoring wife and a fleet of sports cars, ostensibly afforded through a handsome salary as a top executive of ADM.
But there’s something odd about him. As the movie progresses, we hear his stream-of-consciousness thoughts about everything and anything. We keep hearing Damon speaking Whitacre’s inner thoughts out loud–things like this: He is not sure whether the German sports car is pronounced “porsh” or “Portia.” He muses that Oscar de la Renta ties that are always on sale at the mall because nobody buys them. It would be safe to say that James Joyce’s place in literary history will not be threatened by Soderberg’s monologues for Whitacre.
Eventually, the FBI investigates a story from Whitacre about ADM being blackmailed by an unidentified Japanese businessman in the grain processing business who has planted viruses in the ADM factory that destroys their commodities. When they learn that the story might have been fabricated, they are not discouraged since Whitacre, a seemingly virtuous character despite his talent for tall stories, assures them that there are bigger crimes going on at ADM. Higher-up’s are involved with a vast conspiracy that has forced higher prices for all the corn-syrup laden garbage in your grocery stores. The FBI persuades Whitacre to wear a tape recorder to meetings where the price-fixing takes place and through his efforts a number of executives are apprehended and imprisoned. Despite his role in uncovering the crimes, Whitacre ends up in the can himself for embezzling millions of dollars.
Toward the end of the movie, we finally learn that Whitacre’s compulsive lying and thieving were likely the result of a bipolar psychiatric disorder. Perhaps you can say that Soderberg succeeded in dramatizing the personality and behavior of a sick person, but it is a small victory considering his failure to make the character dramatically compelling. There is something uniquely one-dimensional and underdeveloped about the major character in the film, owing to his obvious detachment from reality. There is no attempt to make him sympathetic. Soderberg is mostly interested in presenting the audience with a kind of freak show that is worth neither the price of a ticket nor 108 minutes of squirming in your seat over the suffering of a character in the name of dark comedy.