I DON’T QUITE know what I was thinking, loading in an intense double feature the other night — first, the Coen brothers’ quite excellent A Serious Man, b/w George Clooney in Up in the Air — except perhaps I was in need of cinematic commiserating. From the pile-on of life’s inexplicable yet inevitable misfortunes in the former, to corporate America’s brass-tacks formula, swapping kid gloves for the latex, disposable variety when it comes to handling 21st Century “staff reduction” of the latter — both films reflect the sense of free-floating anxiety, insomnia-inducing worry and blind corners so many of us have turned (and continue to) of late.
A Serious Man is the Coen’s turn on the Book of Job — arch, funny yet utterly tragic. I’m sorry I couldn’t embed one of my favorite (comparatively lighter) moments in the film (but will link here) when Larry Gopnik, a burdened, tenure-track physics professor is confronted by a student who doesn’t understand why he failed the class (“I received an unsatisfactory grade. . . . A failing grade.”) No matter that he got on F on the midterm because he didn’t understand the math. His proposed fix? A do-over: “Secret test. Hush hush.” Both performances — Gopnik, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and the student, Clive by David Kang — are note-perfect. Of course, Professor Gopnik has many more grave matters to attend to in his life: his crumbling marriage (and splintering family); a savant brother who has moved into a tense household and brought all of his, metaphorically, un-laundered baggage with him. Clive’s confrontation is the last thing the world-weary Gopnik needs. But Clive keeps turning up, like the bad pennies often seem to, always at our worst moments.
Up in the Air is so very 21st Century in its forced-air, stainless-steel, one-carry-on fashion. It’s life played out beneath fluorescents — offices, airports, parking lots and lounges — so much of the film is bathed in an icy, blue hue. Lives implode in this one, and Clooney (who plays a first-class flying hatchet man, Ryan, who criss-crosses the U.S. laying off (“We never say fired“) long-term employees whose bosses are too afraid to do the deed. Ryan moves effortlessly through security checkpoints and metal detectors, racking up his 10 million miles living somewhere between here and nowhere.
Taken together, it was a tough dose of “today” filled with people whose lives are in a perpetual state of disarray, bodies that brush against one another but fear closeness, men and women attempting to control the uncontrollable creating their own realities and rules, trying to figure out equations when they don’t know quite how to do the math.
I’ve been thinking about them both all day.
Therefore, tonight, I think a musical is in order . . .