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Momentarily Appropriate Quotelet

“What the hell’s wrong with being stupid once in awhile? Does everything you do always have to be sensible? Haven’t you ever thrown waterballoons off a roof? When you were a little kid didn’t you ever sprinkle Ivory flakes on the living room floor ’cause you wanted to make it snow in July? Didn’t you ever get really shitfaced and maybe make a complete fool of yourself and still have an excellent time?”

Gib, “The Sure Thing”

Review: “Julia” (2008)

Just as there are people who cannot tell lies, there are people who cannot tell the truth. Julia (Tilda Swinton) has no concept of honesty. Maybe she did once, when she was younger, but alcoholism has blacked out that memory. Now she lives in an elaborate world of mostly improvised, fool-nobody lies. They serve to protect her from the truth: that she’s not a bewitching charmer but a veering-off-the-cliff drunk who uses people, then discards them like empty beer bottles.

Playing someone like that takes a hearty lack of vanity because Julia is a cruel, if not downright despicable, person. She rewards a helpful neighbor (Kate del Castillo), who drags Julia into her apartment after finding her passed out on the pavement, with a curt “I’m not really down with the good neighbor shit.” (The lit cigarette dangling from her lips adds a nice touch.) She looks rode hard and put away wet — smeared make-up or none at all, dirty hair sticking in 15 directions, too-tight dress hiked above her waist. This is rough stuff, and not a part that many actresses would take. Then again, no one’s ever accused Tilda Swinton of being stuck-up. She goes full-throttle in every part; she relishes a good challenge, even one as tough as Julia, who’s not only a raging, unrepentant alcoholic but might be crazy, certifiably crazy, as well.

With Julia, Swinton more than surpasses our expectations. There’s none of this “time to grow a heart of gold” horse manueur — she doesn’t soften Julia’s edges or find the good girl within. No, she keeps right on being hateful and ruthless because the character is hateful and ruthless. It’s a testament to Swinton’s skill as an actress that we like Julia no better (my argument: she doesn’t grow at all) at the end than we did at the beginning. And in the beginning? Whoa, what a flaming train wreck this woman is. She’s boozed her way out of the job her friend Mitch (Saul Rubinek) got for her, blames a co-worker and spews profanity at her boss. She believes everything happens to her, not the other way around. She barely goes to AA. The one time she does, she meets Elena (the gut-wrenching del Castillo), a widow and recovering addict planning to kidnap her son Tom (Aidan Gould) from his rich grandfather. Elena waits until after she rescues Julia from her pavement blackout to ask for help. Julia, of course, isn’t interested … until Elena offers her $50,000. She is, it seems, a widow with financial means. Julia agrees because surely 50 grand will be her ticket out of this life. That a mother and son will be reunited matters little.

Plot-wise, that’s all that should be revealed, because “Julia” is a humdinger of a what-the-hell-just-happened? thriller. Too many unexpected turns crop up to keep them all sorted out. What begins as one kidnapping turns into two; double-crosses turn into triple-crosses; seemingly ordinary people turn out to be volatile criminals, even killers. There are point-blank murders and a desert car chase with helicopters and so many lies that not even Julia, who’s doing the telling, can begin to remember them all. Many of these twists are far-fetched, even impossible, but they work on two levels: They keep the tension consistently high (director Erick Zonca has an effective, almost documentary-like approach to filming violence) and they seem a natural fit for Julia’s life, a house of cards dependent on deceit to keep standing. The chaotic story seems to offer us a glimpse into Julia’s chaotic mind.

Swinton sells this material, or at least delivers such a knockout performance that we don’t think to question the more implausible elements. She’s at her best in her scenes with the young Gould, where we see her drug him, bind-and-gag him, toss him in car trunks without much thought. The more time they spend together, the more you’d expect her to warm toward Tom — not necessarily. Much like a psychopath incapable of emotion, she mimics socially appropriate responses. Even in the end, we can’t be sure if Julia’s changed or if circumstances have forced her hand. Tilda Swinton has the gumption to pull this off. Would that we could have more actresses like her.

Grade: A-

Visually striking “Alice” lacks emotional weight

Helena Bonham Carter steals scenes (and heads) in Tim Burton's eye-popping "Alice in Wonderland."

Back in Underland after a 13-year absence, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) finds herself lost and certain she’s the wrong Alice. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is just as certain she’s the right one, but there’s a catch. “You used to be much more … ‘muchier.’ You’ve lost your muchness,” Hatter laments. Alice has lost her groove, poor lass, and he’ll stop at nothing — including the use of frequent accent switches — to help her find it.

This is what Tim Burton’s long-anticipated and fluorescent-hued film amounts to: a 109-minute quest to find Alice’s muchness, the very same muchness a corset-filled life in London has chased away. As a visual experience, “Alice in Wonderland” proves a feast for the eyes, a smörgåsbord of vibrant colors and landscapes, delightful costumes (the Red Queen’s make-up and the mushrooms alone are amazing). Give in to the 3D pull if you must, but this film is meant to be seen the way it was filmed: in 2D. As a movie, though, there’s a lack of emotional depth and character development that make it difficult to connect the “wow” we see with our eyes to any real sense of heartfelt wonderment. And seeing the magic and feeling it — the way we do in, say, “Avatar” — are two very different things.

The saving graces, however, come in the form of the characters, many of which are so vibrant and unforgettable they detract from the film’s shortcomings. (Stephen Fry’s Cheshire Cat could induce a smattering of night terrors, for example, as could Helena Bonham Carter’s strangely touching Red Queen.) Screenwriter Linda Woolverton takes liberties with Lewis Carroll’s tale; some are successful and some are not. “Alice in Wonderland” begins in London, where Alice is set to marry an uppity, blockheaded lord (Tim Pigott-Smith). Underland is no longer in her thoughts, and life has become gray since her father’s (Martin Csokas) death. Now Alice must weather a marriage proposal in front of people she hates wearing no stockings and no corset (she believes in neither). In gallops the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) to lead her down the rabbit hole, where everyone, from Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) to that wise old toker* the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), insists she can’t be the Alice of 13 years past. They waste pages of dialogue arguing about this. They don’t reach a conclusion, not until the Mad Hatter sets them right. She is Alice, she will save them from the Red Queen (Bonham Carter) and the lovely, magnanimous White Queen (Anne Hathaway) will take back her throne.

The lead-up to the Big Battle — a crushing disappointment of a CGI-coated finale where the seams show through — proves to be somewhat tedious and rushed. Writing is a weak point in “Alice in Wonderland,” with Woolverton providing little development on the best characters and Burton spotlighting the weakest ones. The Mad Hatter acts like a narrator/historian, but he’s a mystery to us. Maybe he’s written as an all-over-the-map chap or maybe that’s just how Depp plays him; either way, it doesn’t work. He’s an annoying kook, not a lovable one. The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) is a rather uninteresting villain who gets loads of screentime, whereas Fry’s ominous Cheshire Cat and Rickman’s droll caterpillar are reduced to a few scenes.

Not everyone fairs so badly. Hathaway’s bright smile and chirpy manner hints that the White Queen isn’t so different from her evil sister, only more restrained. Wasikowska gives Alice some gumption, a kind of uncertain, coltish beauty and spirit that illustrate the painful tug between youth and adulthood. And yet the true, unadulterated star of “Alice in Wonderland” is Burton favorite Helena Bonham Carter, who’s simply smashing as the freakish, self-conscious Red Queen. She is a woman who insulates herself with a throng of mindless nodders, people who don fake noses and bellies and ears to offset the queen’s oversized head. She’s quick to anger and still there’s a softness in her for the outsiders, although her sad, lonely life has taught her that “it is far better to be feared than loved.” She gets at our hearts in ways the film she’s in simply cannot.

Grade: B-

*Don’t kid yourself. He’s a pothead.

My thought on today

No. 30: “The Fall” (2006)

“There’s no happy ending with me,” stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace) tells Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), the inquisitive little girl who sneaks into his hospital room. Truer and more heartbreaking words were never spoken. Wasted by heartbreak and paralyzed by a stunt gone wrong, Roy is sticking around just long enough to commit suicide. Young Alexandria, hospitalized with a broken arm, looks like a suitably gullible accomplice. But then Roy starts to weave an epic tale of vengeance, love and honor, and his own story shifts in ways he did not see coming. The telling changes him, and Alexandria, too.

Such is the beauty of Tarsem Singh’s poetic, wrenching and visually striking “The Fall,” a film that marries unforced yet dynamic performances (Pace and Untaru are splendidly matched) with bold characters and vibrant landscapes. This is a story within a story, and the players in both act in ways we do not anticipate. To create one such story, where the characters surprise and touch us, is quite an accomplishment; to create two in one movie, impossible, yet somehow Singh has done it. By the end, “The Fall” struck me speechless.

Still, a film like “The Fall” deserves a lot of words, so this dumbstruck routine cannot hold. The central story involves the unlikely friendship between Roy and Alexandria. Roy, paralyzed on set by a foolish stunt he cooked up to impress the girlfriend he lost anyway to the movie’s star, has no desire to live. But he finds Alexandria an amusing distraction. So Roy creates a story for her about five heroes — Luigi (Robin Smith), an explosives expert; an unnamed Indian (Jeetu Verma); Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley), an ex-slave; Charles Darwin (Leo Bill); and the masked Blue Bandit (Pace) — all out to kill corrupt Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone). The story weaves in and out of Roy and Alexandria’s reality, set in a hospital in 1920s-era Los Angeles.

Later, there is a line that suggests Roy’s intentions aren’t totally pure: “You always stop at the same part, when it is very beautiful,” Alexandria tells him. He has a sneaky reason for this: He holds the full story hostage to convince her to do something he can’t do for himself. But it’s more complex than that. Pace’s eyes here suggest Roy has other reasons. Maybe this broken man wants to remember things that way, when the edges were softer and the emotions kinder. Or perhaps he wants to leave Alexandria with memories of vigor and beauty, not the pain and rage he can’t shake. There is not one single motive, but many, and they all get tangled up in Roy’s larger-than-life tale.

There’s no doubt that the heroic story, with its villains and roiling, chaotic emotions, demands much of the viewer’s attention. Visually, the Blue Bandit’s pursuit of Governor Odious looks awesome, with its electrifying colors, innovative costumes and double casting. A few glorious fight scenes in (note the Bandit/Odious showdown), it’s clear that Tarsem Singh is the kind of visionary Guillermo del Toro should envy. “The Fall” feels every bit like the cinematic equivalent of a Dali painting, with eye-popping colors and images. In fact, the look of the Blue Bandit’s quest seems, at times, enough to overpower the story of Roy and Alexandria.

The reason the visuals don’t win out? Untaru and Pace, who make a strange but electrifying pair. The Romania-born Untaru doesn’t speak much English, but she hardly needs to — she has a natural curiosity that feel completely authentic. She’s innocent, but we get the sense that she might understand the story Roy creates has more to do with his real life than he’ll admit. Her plea for Roy to make her a part of that story, and then to give her some control over its outcome, is devastating. And what of Pace, who’s been creating an impressive resume? Wow. Just … wow. His layered performance as Roy is blistering, with its mix of resignation and increasingly unchecked wrath. He’ll shred your heart, tear it right out and then sneak it back in a little bigger and stronger for the wear. With Pace at the heart and Singh at the helm, “The Fall” is just that kind of powerful moviegoing experience.

The Really Big Shew

It wasn't so much the Academy Awards as it was "Hurt Locker" Appreciation Night.

Methinks there ain’t much room left in that locker for hurtin’, Mrs. Bigelow, on account of all those shiny, shiny awards.

Fans of the film or no, readers, I believe we all can come to harmonious agreement that that was the unofficial sentiment of last night’s 82nd Academy Awards … and color me elated (which I do so hope is a peppier color than “stucco,” the current palor of M. Carter’s skin given the lack of sleep I got last night). Any movie that could play such strong defense and keep “Avatar” at bay — the film got the awards it deserved, says I — is OK with me, and in this case that movie happened to be Kathryn Bigelow’s flat-out fabulous and gritty “The Hurt Locker.” (That’ll teach me to doubt the Mighty Ebert and his Mighty Oscar Picks.)

The only thing that could have made me happier is if the War Flick That Went Boom didn’t have to trample “Inglourious Basterds” to go to the finish line. I’m not bitter, you understand, because “Hurt Locker” strong-armed its way to no. 2 on my Best 0f 2009 list, knocking “Up in the Air” down a peg. A really stellar film, the kind that sticks with you long after the credits roll.

It just didn’t have a scene with two men smoking really big pipes, or one where Hitler gets shredded like Parmesan by some machine-gun bullets, is all I’m saying. And as far as originality goes, aren’t those the kinds of scenes that deserve Best Original Screenplay, is all I’m asking.

(I’m not bitter, dammit.)

Alas, this isn’t a perfect world and I didn’t get all my hearts desires and Mr. QT didn’t get recognition for crazy-blazin’-mad-freakin’ genius and Ben Stiller came out in “Avatar” garb looking freakier than Chuckie in “Child’s Play” and we were subjected to an unholy union of “We Are the World 1,126” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” But for me, a few good things did happen, as I’ve highlighted below:

Best Picture: “The Hurt Locker”
*Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker” (Girl power)
*Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart” (The Dude abides … and wins)
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side”
                            (Dear Academy: WTF? Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies)
*Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds” (Was there ever any doubt? If so, how can you read this because clearly you’ve spent the last decade living with wolves?)
                             Oh, and that überbingo comment? Just made me fall madly in love with you all over again. Let’s make  babies. Or dinner. I’d settle for dinner.
*Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique, “Precious” (That speech kicked ass and TOOK NAMES.)
Best Original Screenplay: Mark Boal, “The Hurt Locker”
*Best Adapted Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher, “Precious” (No love for “Up in the Air”? I suppose “Precious” is second most deserving.)
*Best Animated Feature: “Up” (Can you say “only viable choice”?)
Best Foreign Feature: “Secret in Their Eyes”
Best Documentary Feature: “The Cove”
*Best Cinematography: “Avatar” (Of course)
Best Editing: “The Hurt Locker”
*Best Art Direction: “Avatar” (Naturally)
Best Costume Design: “The Young Victoria”
*Best Make-Up: “Star Trek” (And you thought Eric Bana was scary in “Munich”)
Best Original Score: “Up”
*Best Original Song: “The Weary Kind,” “Crazy Heart” (One of the most haunting, achy ballads this Southern country music fan has heard in years — it’s real country y’all)
Best Sound Mixing: “The Hurt Locker”
Best Sound Effects Editing: “The Hurt Locker”
*Best Visual Effects: “Avatar” (Must I keep typing?)
Best Documentary Short: “Music by Prudence”
Best Animated Short: “Logorama”
Best Live Action Short: “The New Tenants”

This year I accomplished a personal goal of having seen all but one Best Picture-nominated film, and you can bet I’m counting the days until “An Education” hits Netflix. This, I figure, will give me fodder for a whole ‘nother mess of rant-like anger. Like about how Carey Mulligan and Gabourey Sidibe get passed over for Miss Congeniality.

No. 29: “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)

Thoreau would have loved “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” You see, barber Ed Crane (portrayed with sly wit by Billy Bob Thornton) is living a life of desperation so quiet that it’s damn near mute. He suppresses every discontented feeling, sucking so intently on cigarettes we wonder if he half expects to find joy, not a smoldering butt, at the bottom. He doesn’t, of course, but neither do most of the people who waft in and out of his life. Nearly everyone — from Ed’s philandering, hard-drinking wife Doris (Frances McDormand, flawless as always) to her scheming boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini) — in Ed’s world is just as trapped and miserable as he is. Scene for scene, this sedate stunner of a film plays out like a visual tribute to Thoreau’s most famous soundbite. The desperation, though quiet, is palpable.

However, lose not a moment to thinking such a tight-lipped antihero makes “The Man Who Wasn’t There” an unbearably grim affair. It’s just the opposite; that’s what makes this calculating black-and-white so engrossing. It provides a perfect backdrop for the pitch-black deadpan wit (a Coen brothers specialty) that manages to be disturbing, funny and philosophical all at once. And the cause for that despair (post-World War II fears of communism, the atomic bomb, Roswell, McCarthyism) translates seamlessly, almost eerily, to a post-9/11 society.

But back to the despair. It colors every part of Ed’s life. He chain-smokes it silent while cutting hair at his brother-in-law’s (Michael Badalucco) barber shop, but when he discovers his wife’s affair he sees an opportunity to jump-start his life. The plan? Blackmail her lover,  aptly named department store mogul Big Dave (James Gandolfini) for $10,000, then tap a middleman, the creepy, get-rich-quick drifter Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), to invest the funds in dry cleaning. It’s the wave of the future, Creighton brightly persists. “They don’t use water!”

Part of the fun of any Coen brothers movie is smashing, headlong, into unexpected plot twists, deaths and coincidences, and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is chock-full of them. (Mum’s the word when it comes to more plot summary.) The beauty? The shocks don’t come fast and furious; that’s not how Joel and Ethan operate, at least not here (see “Burn After Reading” if you want a zany free-for-all). Slow and steady’s the pace of this film; there’s not one scene out of place, not one line of dialogue that doesn’t fit. When it comes to the technical aspects, like the gorgeous, awe-inspiring cinematography by Roger Deakins, a Coen regular, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is measured brilliance, an amazing send-up to classic film noir. The barber pole, with its stripes, stands out like a relief map against the bleakness, doing something Ed can’t: move. In any direction.

That high praise extends to the cast. The Coens know how to pick ’em, and there’s nary a weak link in this cadre. McDormand, a Coen staple, never missteps, and she makes Doris — who could have been an easy stereotype: the drunk, cheating, weeping, put-upon wife — a sympathetic character, one aware of her own shortcomings but unwilling to admit them, even when she’s caught. She’s proud and stubborn but self-aware, this one, and she might really, deep down, love her husband. Gandolfini’s Big Dave is a fearsome creature; he swings from sniveling to scary-as-hell in a way that makes it clear he earned his nickname. Tony Shaloub is comedy gold as pompous, pontificating attorney Freddy “I litigate; I don’t capitulate” Reidenschneider, and he’s the one who parrots what may be the film’s most telling line: “The more you look the less you know.”

Still, it doesn’t get much better than Billy Bob Thornton. This is the role he was born to play, and yet he doesn’t play Ed Crane; he is Ed Crane, from the chain smoking to laconic observations to the eternal disallusionment. No one else could play the part this good. Nobody. With his sad, shifty eyes and craggy face, he’s just what he says he is: “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber.” It’s a fascinating yet controlled performance, and one that taps into that elemental fear: that we’ll sleepwalk through life only to wake up too late. Who, readers, has not felt the same?

Who moved my tart?

Happy “Alice in Wonderland”-in-3D-Opens-in-Theaters-Nationwide Day, Interwebbers!

(My sincerest apologies. When I get this excited about a movie, I’m taken over by ROYG-BIV demons.)

I don’t know if y’all know this, but the only appropriate ways to celebrate this happy day are:

  1. Sing “Happy Happy, Joy Joy” long enough to lift your spirit but not so long that your coworkers call the Men in White Coats to take you away.
  2. Work the phrases “Cheshire Cat grin,” “down the rabbit hole” and “off with her head!” into conversations where they have absolutely no business. Alternately, go to the office fridge at lunchtime (when the masses converge), look inside and demand, in shocked tones, to know: “Who stole the tart?”
  3. Go see the movie. Duh.

Happy viewing!


Review: “Set It Off” (1996)

“We need something to set it off with.”
~~Cleo Sims

Not too long ago, a friend who’s been searching fruitlessly for a job had something to say about his troubles: “Class, man. Can’t escape it.” What a whallop five words can have. Back in 1996, the word “recession” wasn’t terribly high on anyone’s list of worries. But class? High, middle or low, class tends to stick around … unless you make it go away. F. Gary Gray’s “Set It Off” is a vivid illustration of this cruel truth. The story of four friends struggling to pull themselves out of the L.A. projects, “Set It Off” is an intense, heartbreaking examination of how class restrictions drive people to drastic action.

Scriptwriter Takashi Bufford — who hammers a bit hard on the heroes/villains angle — provides background about these women, a rarity in most bank heist films since they tend to focus on the action. “Set It Off” has plenty of action and violence, including several tense standoffs and shootouts, but the film is deeper than that. Stony Newsom (Jada Pinkett Smith), Cleo Sims (Queen Latifah), Frankie Sutton (Vivica A. Fox) and T.T. Williams (Kimberly Elise) grew up in the same neighborhood and now face the same problems: not enough money, jobs or respect and too many obstacles. Frankie had a job at a local bank that she lost after reacting improperly to a hold-up. Cleo’s sick of working for her crude boss (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and living in a garage. In a horrendous misunderstanding, Stony’s innocent brother (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) is gunned down outside his apartment by LAPD Detective Strode (John C. McGinley). T.T., unable to afford sitters, takes her toddler son along on a house cleaning job and he accidentally swallows household cleaner. When Child Services takes him, it rips her in half. To this point, “Set It Off” plays like a study of breaking points. At the bottom, each woman finds hers.

And so the group starts to take Cleo’s idea to rob a bank seriously. This idea even looks to be a smart one, since Frankie has the intel and Cleo has the guts and the weapons hookup. Rushed and unplanned as their first heist is, they succeed. Then “Set It Off” abruptly transitions from a layered character study into a bloody action film that follows few conventions except the truest ones: success makes the robbers reckless; outsiders get involved and people get hurt; the cops are watching (McGinley strikes a nice balance between obstinance and humanity) even though the women don’t realize it. Heists have this tendency to unspool when cool is lost and desperation takes over. Given these women’s economic circumstances, though, is there any way to keep desperation out of the equation?

Perhaps not, but “Set It Off” stumbles upon a few ways to make an old story feel new and resonant and exhilarating. The script includes some very honest conversations among these four women about their economic realities and why the risk might be worthwhile. Stony doesn’t believe in stealing, but Cleo (this is considered Latifah’s breakout role for good reason) has a franker take. The way she sees it, they’re just taking back what they system has taken from them. She’s not wrong. There is a conviviality among Frankie, Stony, Cleo and T.T. that feels true; gone is the fake, B.S. Hollywood formality. Watch for a brief scene where the women play “Godfather” to discuss their robbery plans. It’s excellent comic relief; more than that, it speaks to how deep their connection runs. Each actress gives a fine performance, but Pinkett Smith and Latifah are marvelous. Pinkett Smith shows us how the raw pain of loss changes people, and Latifah lights up every scene with Cleo’s intensity. She’s on fire.

Certain failings threaten to hamper this refreshing friendship. Gray’s direction in the action scenes is subtle as an Uzi; he tries to make these women into unstoppable action heroes, not the human beings we’ve empathized with. There’s also a romance (Blair Underwood plays Stony’s well-to-do suitor) that is completely useless. Both are mistakes, but they aren’t unforgivable ones, mainly because “Set It Off” is one of the best movies about class division and female friendships made in a long, long time.

Grade: B+

Review: “A Serious Man” (2009)

If there’s one thing the Coens love, it’s burying themes in one line of dialogue. In “No Country for Old Men,” it’s “You can’t stop what’s comin'”; in “Blood Simple,” “Down here, you’re on your own.” The backbone of “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is “The more you look the less you know.” Their latest effort, the puzzling, bleakly comic “A Serious Man,” contains the real doozy. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor, has gotten a few mean swirlies in life’s toilet. After filling a board full of indecipherable equations to explain the Uncertainty Principle, he switches to words. “It means that we can’t ever really know what’s going on,” he tells his blank-eyed students. KERBLAM goes the dynamite.

On the other hand, distilling a movie as complex and opaque as “A Serious Man” into one sentence seems a tad foolish. But there are many elements in this film, a snapshot of 1967 in the suburbs of Minneapolis, that don’t appear to make the least bit of sense: most of the characters; what they say; what they do; what they don’t do; that dimly-lit, oddball, total head-scratcher of a prologue involving an early 20th-century Jewish couple (Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson) and a guest (Fyvush Finkel) the wife believes to be a dybbuk, or evil spirit, in the body of a dead neighbor. At the hub of all the confusion is Larry, a man who infuriates us by doing nothing — nothing to deserve the way people mistreat him, nothing to deserve his bad fortune and, even worse, nothing to fight it. Larry Gopnik is a man who takes things lying down. His default setting is anguished befuddlement.

Can we like a man like this?  Eh. Heroes and bad men we root for because they have courage or gumption, but the ones who live their lives as an apology? That’s a tougher sell. Still, Stuhlbarg lends Larry a kind of barely contained, Jonah-in-the-whale desperation that is understandable if not endearing. A tidal wave of despair might freeze any man. Actually, it isn’t so much a tidal wave as a flood that’s got Larry down. It starts with his wife Judith’s (Sari Lennick) announcement that she’s leaving him for his best friend Sy (Fred Melamed) and wants a gett, or Jewish divorce. His children — the whiny Sarah (Jessica McManus) and Danny (Aaron Wolff), preparing for his bar mitzvah by smoking lots of pot — don’t help matters. Neither does his loser brother Arthur (Richard Kind), a gambler with a perpetually draining sebaceous cyst who won’t get his own place. Larry’s shot at tenure may have been ruined by his lack of published work and anonymous hate mail, and then there are his feelings about a neighbor’s wife who sunbathes nude. Every breath Larry takes just fills up his lungs with more water. The film’s last scene is the gulp that might end him. It’s a lyrical yet pithy combination of Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the Coens’ faultless ear for pop music (hello, “Somebody to Love”).

Stuhlbarg, a relative unknown, is the reason why Larry curries our favor. His endless quest for an answer is often funny, but in ways that makes our guts churn. This is dark new territory for Joel and Ethan Coen — and these are the men who dream up lines like “he was alive when I buried him.” In fact, this might be their darkest film yet, maybe darker than “No Country for Old Men.” They show no mercy to Larry and make him about as pitiful as a man can get without being duct-taped naked to a flag pole. Why? Probably there isn’t an answer to this, though I’ve heard “A Serious Man” called a modern retelling of the Book of Job. Perhaps the directors simply intend to show that bad things happen to average people. When they do, we demand answers; there must be a reason and we figure we deserve to know what it is. Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) doesn’t think so. “We all want the answer! But Hashem* doesn’t owe us the answer. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything.” If you buy that, you’ll buy “A Serious Man.” It’s not the Coens’ best, but you can’t say it isn’t their deepest.

Grade: B+

*Hebrew for “The Name”; a term for God many Jewish people use in conversation.