Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Serious Man and Capitalism: A Love Story

With A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers are at it again. I knew I wasn’t going to like this one when, ten minutes in, one of the filmmakers’ trademark rubes – this time a fat Jewish teacher’s assistant – waddles her way into a Hebrew school classroom. So we’re like, what, supposed to laugh? Amidst all the typical shtick, there’s something like a genuine moral inquiry here, but it’s hard to know just how serious to take it. Perhaps the Brothers’ blend of dark humor and investigation into man’s place in the universe just isn’t well suited to my sensibilities, but it’s hard to say exactly what the latter aims to accomplish in the face of the former’s cancelling cynicism. Michael Stuhlbarg’s hapless schlemiel, Larry Gopnik, is certainly an appealing enough creation, a non-hero trying to get access to an absent and very Jewish god when his 1967 suburban life goes to shit and the filmmakers’ evocation of a half-remembered, half-imagined Jewish community is a vivid bit of world creation. But what does it amount to? For all the Coen’s superficial creativity, theirs is ultimately a failure of imagination, an inability to see beyond their safely pessimistic boundaries. Not that pessimism is an invalid perspective, but to stack the universe so resolutely against its hero, so that the upshot of all his struggles is a terminal disease and a deadly tornado (in the film’s open-ended ending that’s not really open-ended), seems like the gesture of a frustrated adolescent, not a committed artist. And let’s not forget the film’s embarrassing low-point when an ancient rabbi delivers, not the words of wisdom expected from a man of his legend, but a few snippets of a Jefferson Airplane lyric. But I guess that should teach us how to take these filmmakers. You go in expecting revelation – or at least something more than cynical gags – and you emerge with nonsense.


A lot of people have criticized Michael Moore for giving us more of the same in Capitalism: A Love Story. I like to think he’s refined his approach. Which is to say, he’s mostly tossed out the stunts and kept to the facts - or at least the Michael Moore version of them. When he’s going good, as he frequently is here, the Roger and Me director is as skilled a rhetorician as there is working in film – playing stupid with his subjects, making pointed juxtapositions, or simply stacking available information in such a way to increase the impact of its presentation. Of course, he’s wildly unfair – and more than a little off-putting – but why shouldn’t he be? Someone has to counter the increasingly hysterical, increasingly mainstream voices of right-wing nutters who seem to get an awful lot of attention from the middle-of-the-road press. Still, Moore’s impact, especially now that he’s such a known quantity, is likely to be nil. He can be safely slotted into a harmless niche: you already know if you’re going to see his films or ignore them.

Capitalism is overlong, scattershot in its approach (why is he devoting so much time to the plight of airline pilots?), and covers material that’s already lost its freshness, but it’s also exhilarating. The film’s coverage of a Chicago factory sit-in, in which laid off workers simply refused to leave the building without their due concessions, is downright inspiring, although here Moore mostly effaces his own personality. In fact, this time around his trademark stunts are barely there (he tries to make a citizen’s arrest of leading financial figures and wraps the stock exchange in crime-scene tape) and they seem mostly like empty gestures, the filmmaker going through the motions. But that just allows him to spend more time outlining his central case against the capitalist system as it’s currently practiced as being antithetical to the ideals of democracy. Basically the achievement of Capitalism is to spell out the facts in such a way that they’re impossible to ignore. Nobody does it better than Moore.

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