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Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying is a high concept film that explores some dark ideas about humanity, specifically the usefulness of deceit in maintaining an orderly and polite society, but ultimately falls back into a comfortably familiar but well-executed romance.

The high concept here is a doozy, and try not to think too hard about it, lest you follow a plot hole through to its conclusion and unravel the whole film. Humanity has never evolved the ability to lie, until Ricky Gervais uses it to get money to pay the rent. The best gags in the film, which admittedly are more of the "gee that's pretty clever" sort than the laugh out loud kind, stem from Gervais and his co-writers exploring what this world would be like. Movies are just taped historical lectures, and advertising is just an earnest plea for you to spend your money on their products. ("Please do not stop buying Coke" "Pepsi: When they don't have Coke.") Casinos inform you when you ask for chips that some of the games are rigged, a fact which does not seem to hurt business.

The most daring conceit of the film is that this world is without religion, until of course, Gervais invents it to console his dying mother. Since no one can understand the idea of someone making something up, everyone believes him and he is hounded for details about The Man in the Sky.

Gervais's character was a middling to poor screenwriter before his revelation, and I like that his inventions showcase that lack of talent. His idea of heaven is a place where everyone has mansions and the best kind of ice cream they can think of, and you get sent to the bad place if you do three bad things. ("So it's like baseball?" one man helpfully asks.) The film wrings some humor out of people hearing of religion for the first time, which may be offensive to some deeply religious people, but was pretty damn funny to me.

The film is less successful when looking at a love in an entirely truthful world. The idea of people telling each other exactly what they think ("You're way out of my league") works for a while, but the idea that romantic love is impossible doesn't seem to fit. Jennifer Garner's character clearly has some feelings for Gervais, but is marrying Rob Lowe's bufoonish jerk because his genes would make for better children. The implication that you have to lie to yourself in order to love someone who isn't attractive is a little uncomfortable and is underdeveloped within the film itself. It makes it a little harder to be glad that the two leads get together at the end.

The acting here is more than fair for a comedy. Gervais does a passable job with the dramatic scenes, and Garner does a good job of putting a blank look on her face. Rob Lowe is disconcertingly believable as a heartless jerk (Not you Sam Seaborn! Tell me it isn't so!) and there are a plethora of cameos by the famous (Philip Seymour Hoffman as a dimwitted bartender) and the funny (Tina Fey, Louis C.K., Jonah Hill, John Hodgman and many more.)

Tellingly, the credits use a font(imdb says it is called Windsor)that Woody Allen has been using in his movies for years. The Invention of Lying has the feel of one of Allen's high concept pictures, like The Purple Rose of Cairo. The story reaches simultaneously for the heart and the mind, though it possibly fails to fully engage either. It's the kind of movie where you can see how it might have difficulty finding an audience (it's neither bleak enough for cynics nor sappy enough for romantics) but it really struck a chord for me, and though it won't be one of my favorite movies it is one I will remember fondly. That gets it a 7.3 out of 10

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Serious Man

Larry Gopnik, the Jewish physics professor whose misfortunes form the central narrative of A Serious Man, wants you to know that he didn't do anything. The film, the latest from the Coen brothers, deals with the question of whether or not "I didn't DO anything" is a valid excuse.

Larry didn't do anything to drive his wife into the arms of another man, but by not doing anything to get his unemployed brother off their coach he may have increased the distance between them. He didn't do anything to put his tenure status in danger, but he didn't publish any papers that may have secured it. In a humorous bit, Larry didn't do anything in regards with the Columbia Record Club, but that's precisely why he keeps receiving the Record of the Month. In front of his students Larry uses the famous Schrodinger's Cat story, in which a cat is both dead and alive inside an unopened box. In his own life Larry seems not to want to open the box and find out how things really are.

Is inactivity the reason for Larry's misfortunes? The Coen brothers don't explicitly answer that question, and neither do the series of advisers whom Larry seeks out in his increasing desperation. These include an aging progression of rabbis and a contingent of lawyers. None of their parables or pieces of advice prove helpful. A scene where a rabbi tells a nonsensical story about a dentist and engraved teeth, only to reveal that there is no conclusion to the story, is especially prescient.

A Serious Man is a damn impressive movie, and one that Coen brothers fans will absolutely love. The humor is blacker than black, as its possible to interpret the film as promoting the idea of a meaningless and cruel universe. And yet I found myself laughing throughout the film, even as I sympathized with Larry's plight. Michael Stuhlbarg plays exasperation perfectly, and several supporting players are also really good. The actor playing "the other man" stands out especially.

I was, at the moment, a little upset with the ending, although with a little distance it makes perfect sense. The Coens do risk going to the ambiguous ending well a little too often, but I can forgive them that as long as they crank out such appealing, humorous, and well, serious films. 9.6 out of 10

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Let the Great World Spin

This is not the book I was promised. Colum McCann's National Book Award Winner is promoted as an evocative look at 1970s New York, through the prism of Philippe Petit's sensational tightrope walk between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974. Instead, Petit's walk is only a minor presence in the narrative and the lives of the many protagonists in this "novel". The fictional characters of the novel can not compete with the readers interest in McCann's fictionalized version of Petit.

The novel starts strongly, with a vignette of New Yorkers discovering Petit's presence so far above their heads. The novel's first true chapter quickly moves the action away from Petit, and though that chapter's depiction of two Irish brothers living in New York is rather well-done, the book quickly flags from there.

Part of the problem is that, despite using varying narrators and narrative styles, the characters, absurdly given their surface differences, seem too much like one another. Plenty of authors have problems creating realistic dialogue, but McCann seems to have trouble even accurately expressing a person's inner thoughts. All of his characters, of high and low backgrounds, of all personality types, seem to think with impossible eloquence and in the same sort of philosophical reverie. This makes some sense for Claire, the Park Avenue judge's wife whose son dies in Vietnam, but it makes little sense for a lot of the other characters and it makes the book repetitive and wearing on the reader's sensibilities. Eventually you stop caring about whether and how the stories of these protagonists are going to intertwine.

The answer to that is that some do and some don't, which may be more realistic than the Dickensian bow which wraps everything up neatly, but is certainly a lot less fun. The connections between the characters are more frustrating because of how easily they are sniffed out by even a moderately attentive reader. There is nothing to surprise you in this book.

As for the claim that the book is richly evocative of New York? I disagree strongly. This book only sporadically attains the vibrancy and excitement that New York seems to attain on a daily basis.

New York City is exciting even when there isn't someone walking on a tightrope hundreds of feet in the air. The same can not be said for Let the Great World Spin. 5.6 out of 10

Monday, February 8, 2010

Movie Roundup

I have decided that only recent movies are relevant enough to merit full reviews in this space. However, I still plan to catch up on classic films through Netflix, and in case anyone is interested, will be providing quick thoughts on them periodically.

Unforgiven: Clint Eastwood's subversive western won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1992. It's a well-shot and entertaining story which tries to take an honest look at what a dirty, mean, horrible world the Old West probably was. Moral of the story is a bit obvious, but refreshing for a Hollywood that glorified gunfights for decades. Eastwood gives a fine performance, but Richard Harris and Oscar winner Gene Hackman (pictured above) steal the show. 9.0 out of 10

Bonnie and Clyde: Warren Beatty has been in the news lately for an unauthorized bio which claims he slept with nearly 13,000 different woman, a probably false statistic that still made it hard to believe his performance as the sexually incapacitated Clyde Barrow. Faye Dunaway is a tremendously sexy presence as Bonnie Parker, Gene Hackman is very good as Clyde's brother Buck, and Estelle Parsons somehow won an Oscar for playing the most annoying gang member in movie history. Overall, there's neither enough fun or enough weight to really make this movie resonate. 6.0 out of 10

Purple Rose of Cairo: Woody Allen's high-concept fantasy about a movie character who walks offscreen to say hello to Mia Farrow's sad housewife. Delightfully funny and surprisingly touching. Jeff Bridges plays the character and the "real" actor in a dual role, and the movie within the movie provides real laughs as the other actors are unable to continue without a key part of their ensemble. One of Allen's best that I've seen. 7.9 out of 10

Zelig: Another Woody Allen movie but this one misfires horribly. Focuses on a "human chameleon" who comes to resemble any person he encounters. Point here is really the effects, inserting Allen into '30s style footage. Also an early use of mockumentary format. Effects may have been astonishing at the time, but the humor here is nonexistent for a supposed comedy. I didn't even crack a smile and couldn't finish the film's 79 minute running time. Might be disingenuous to review a film I didn't finish, but this gets a 0.0 out of 10

The Americanization of Emily: Paddy Chayefsky wrote one of my favorite scripts ever, for 1976's Network, and I also enjoyed his script for The Hospital starring George C. Scott, so I expected to like this one a little bit more than I did. James Garner plays an U.S. admiral's personal aide who through army mess-ups winds up leaving his cushy job to be the first man on Omaha Beach in the D-day invasion. Julie Andrews is the English widow who falls in love with him for his cynical disbelief in heroism. Interesting ideas presented, but often they are presented in lengthy diatribes which break you out of the narrative. Worthwhile, but no Network. 6.6 out of 10

Without a Clue: Another Sherlock Holmes movie, but this one is a somewhat clever send-up of the great detective. Ben Kingsley's Dr. Watson has created a fictional detective the public believes is real, so he hires Michael Caine, an out-of-work actor, to play the part. Caine's Holmes is a bumbling moron who drives Watson crazy with his ego and his screw-ups. It's a funny premise that the film doesn't do much with. 5.8 out of 10