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One to Watch: “A Serious Man”

The fact that Coen brothers’ movies still get touted as “black comedies” gives me a chuckle. Make that a guffaw. Which spirals into uncontrolled hysterical laughter followed by a whimper. I mean, this is the same word people used to describe “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” and it starred Kirstie Alley. These two movies are on the same plain? Really?

Eh, I digress. The point is, the trailer looks fantastic and every inch like a return to form for the Coens after the somewhat disappointing “Burn After Reading.” Could “A Serious Man” be “Blood Simple” for the 21st-century? I swoon at the thought. With the Coens, it’s hard to tell if you’re going to get a masterpiece or “The Ladykillers.” The fact that the brothers are using a cast of relative (Paul Lassiter from “Spin City”!) to total (Michael Stuhlbarg, who has been lead actor in, uh, nothing) unknowns could be great or terrible. That’s the twisted ball of magic that is a Coen brothers movie. 

 

Review: “Come Early Morning” (2006)

Come_Early_MorningThere are movies where everything happens, movies where nothing really happens and movies where everything happens because nothing really happens. Joey Lauren Adams’ quietly observant “Come Early Morning” belongs to this third group, a cinematic subset that includes such underappreciated gems as “The Station Agent” or “Trees Lounge.” But the lack of action in “Come Early Morning” isn’t laziness. No, it’s more of a call to action. Adams asks us to pay closer attention, to look harder and longer and unearth the meaning in the thousands of little moments. The emotional payoff is small and hard-won but satisfying nonetheless.

Of course, Ashley Judd’s richly textured turn as Lucy Fowler, a 30-something Little Rock contractor who spends most mornings recovering from the night before, feels like reward enough. Judd is a curiosity, an actress with an innate shyness, a bruised emotional toughness, that no agent knows how to handle. Adams does, though, and it’s a relief to see a director who trusts Judd to know herself and find her own way. She does just that with Lucy, showing us a brutal cynic who uses alcohol and semi-anonymous sex to blunt her loneliness and pass the time. Lucy’s hardness frightens most people, including her more hopeful roommate (Laura Prepon) and her mute, closed-off father Lowell (Scott Wilson, never better). But it doesn’t scare the new-in-town Cal (Jeffrey Donovan, an actor with rather impressive range) as much as intrigue him, so he forges a tentative bond with Lucy, who put her heart on lockdown years before.

And thus ends the action at the center of “Come Early Morning.” But that’s hardly where the movie ends. Remember those “little moments”? They’re scattered about with some care, and every one of them delivers emotional punch. Take the moment when Lucy, stone sober, squirms in discomfort while Cal kisses her. He asks her: “When’s the last time you kissed somebody sober?” She can’t remember, but the unease on her face in this scene gives us the answer. Lucy has no concept of sex or affection without alcohol, so sober vulnerability is alien to her. So, too, is the idea of human connection in general. There’s a heart-breaking scene where Lucy invites herself along to her father’s “holy roller” church. Wilson is amazing in this scene, playing tight-lipped but somehow radiating surprise and the tiniest bit of pleasure. Lucy’s taking a risk here, a big one, and Judd makes us feel her fear, her anger and her desperation. It seems like a throwaway, but what heft it has.

But Judd does that with most of her scenes in “Come Early Morning,” which offers a beautifully understated look at Southern life that doesn’t degenerate into a mess of lazy stereotypes. (Judd’s accent? It’s real; only a born Southerner could tell the difference.) Her face, eyes and body language make Lucy seem less like a woman, more like a scared child fighting like hell to keep from growing up. In a way, that’s exactly what Lucy is. She’s someone who made up her mind that people, particularly men, were rotten and untrustworthy years ago, and she’s too stubborn to change her mind because that would uproot her world. Only an actress like Judd could communicate how subtly but surely a woman like this could begin to embrace change. And maybe only a director as patient as Joey Lauren Adams could draw out that kind of performance. It’s the kind of rare, intuitive teamwork that signals the birth of one career and the rebirth of another.

Grade: A-