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Popcorn & Prejudice: A Movie Blog

Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald muses on moviegoing. Email Moira: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

September 13, 2009 at 9:05 AM

At TIFF: The Coen brothers get “Serious”

TORONTO — Trust Joel and Ethan Coen to title their funniest film in a while “A Serious Man.” It’s the tragicomic tale of Larry Gopnik, a midwestern physics professor in 1967, is trying hard to be a mensch, but life keeps conspiring against him: His wife wants to leave him, his brother has dark secrets, he’s being accused of “moral turpitude” at work, his soon-to-be-bar-mitzvahed son has a pot problem, his sexy neighbor keeps shooting him an expression that spells trouble, and his daughter spends most of her time washing her hair. And then there’s the car accident, and the doctor’s report, and the money that keeps disappearing from his wallet . . .
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The Coens, taking a step back from their recent movie-star-filled ventures, have cast their film with little-known screen faces, most from a theater background. And what a find they have in Michael Stuhlbarg, the Tony nominee (“The Pillowman”) who plays Larry as a man filled with sweet desperation and layers of guilt; he pushes his glasses up on his forehead as if doing so just might clear the fog over his eyes. As Larry examines, through his trials, what it means to be a man and a Jew, the film becomes unexpectedly warm — that is, for a Coen brothers movie. Don’t look for an upbeat ending; but “A Serious Man” is nonetheless oddly uplifting, and the Coens’ most appealing film in some time.
(By the way, there are films here called “A Serious Man,” “A Solitary Man” and “A Single Man.” I smell a theme, not to mention a lot of potential confusion.)
Oprah Winfrey and entourage are in town today for “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire,” the unsubtle yet moving and often imaginative drama from Lee Daniels about an appallingly abused teen growing up in ’80s Harlem. (Winfrey is an executive producer of the film.) The film could have used a few fewer hammers — there’s a point at which you realize that a little less horror would have made “Precious” more powerful, not less — but the performances are remarkable, particularly Mo’Nique as the hellish mother and newcomer Gabourey Sidibe in the title role.
And, as any film festival, TIFF continues to be rich with eavesdropping opportunities. My latest entry in the One Sentence That Could Be An Entire Movie is this one, heard this morning, as two guys behind me described an acquaintance: “Well, he’s like kind of married, but he’s not really.” Hmm.
(Photo: The Coen Brothers, AP Photo/Carlo Allegri)

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