An Education

In the past few weeks, I’ve reviewed four movies set in the 1960s. (One can see the autobiographical filmmakers’ distress: Starting January 1st, it’ll be accurate to say that the ’60s were a whopping 50 years in the past. Perhaps we’re experiencing a collective baby-boomer mid-century crisis.) The best of the lot is An Education, which is set in a London that was still tiptoeing out of the ’50s. Sidling soft-shoed into the future is Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a fresh-faced schoolgirl of 16, whose first step is projected to be an English degree at cozy Oxford. Her second, in all likelihood, would be in the direction of bourgeois drudgery—not that this twinkling teen fancies thinking so far ahead. Enter David (Peter Sarsgaard), an experienced man of the world, who challenges her notions—or does he?

Deftly made and engrossing, with a naturalistic sensitivity to its time and place, and a poetic affinity for its heroine, An Education is probably one of the most enjoyable pictures so far this year. But at a time when movies are so often sucking up to “influencers”—the self-described beautiful and damned of hipsterdom—this is a film that becomes pointy-edged square. It uses its vertices to stab at characters. And yet, the performers are so good, they dodge the blows. I don’t think one can blame the director, Lone Scherfig, or her crew; the movie has been so competently made—with a light touch that’s neither impersonal nor pretentious—that the production values almost transcend the flaws. But if the driver is blind, the make of the car hardly matters. The metaphorical motorist here, I can only assume, is Lynn Barber: the British journalist on whose memoirs Nick Hornby’s screenplay was based.

I have not read her book, which the script purportedly veers away from in some details, but from what I can tell, Barber never quite recovered from her break-up with the David figure. (Or, perhaps, Hornby wished she never did.) Speaking to a fellow interviewer, she was quoted to have said, “you should start like I do from a position of really disliking people, and then compel them to win you over.” This is about the opposite of how the movie treats David—that dastardly dissimulator! He finances his pseudo-aristocratic languor (as well as the Ravel concerts and Pre-Raphaelite auctions and excursions to Paris that he lavishes on callow teenie-bopper Jenny) with minor criminal enterprises such as blockbusting and finagling unsavvy packrats out of their pricey belongings; and there are other, shadier secrets he fails to divulge. He’s far from a blameless fellow, and quite unsuitable as a reliable spouse; but the film implies that he’s swindling Jenny, too. One look at Sarsgaard and you know better: David is a troubled soul, and his love for Jenny is more than a hoax.

Although Hornby’s dialogue is fresh and rhythmic, his little premonitory stammers issue out like notes sung too sharply. David’s associate Danny (Dominic Cooper), for instance, states early on that he “likes stuff”—ergo, his connoisseurship is no more than shallow materialism. As soon as Danny’s girlfriend Helen (Rosamund Pike) is introduced, she reveals herself to have the I.Q. of a lobotomized sea sponge; she can’t understand why Jenny would spruce up her speech with little bon mots en français, let alone recognize that Jenny’s “gibberish” is French. We see no other women among David’s bohemian set, so Helen sets the standard; the bar is so low that only a mouse could pass through. And since in the movie’s eyes David is also a mouse (or, to flummox my metaphor, a rat), Hornby sets little traps for his charming cosmopolite. At its lowest, the movie stoops to the oldest trick in the book: It insinuates that David is lackluster in bed. This sentiment is voiced by a girl who knows no alternative; you couldn’t get further below the belt without hitting the floor. David does nothing to make amends by the film’s close, which is true to his character, and probably Barber’s life. But when Jenny narrates at the end that she later visits France with a new boyfriend—presumably her own age—and notes that “it was as if I’d never been,” a little falsehood siren registers in one’s mind like a cuckoo clock. Who’s she kidding that David has been bowdlerized from her life? He’s the focus of her autobiography! Emotionally, the scenario tears him out of the picture like an erstwhile lover carved from a photo with scissors. No matter how sharp the scissors, however, Sarsgaard’s image is so strong that I could still see him beneath the outline—he’s more than negative space.

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The Men Who Stare at Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of the best-titled films I’ve ever reviewed. If only it lived up to its name. To be fair to the screenwriter, Peter Straughan, and the first-time director, Grant Heslov, the subject they’ve chosen is a minefield for fair-minded adapters. They’ve drawn from a book by Welsh muckraker Jon Ronson, which was incorporated into a B.B.C. documentary, Crazy Rulers of the World, in 2004. From that title alone, one can discern how Ronson feels about the American military’s flirtation with paranormal tactics; in one flagrant example, a soldier―to paraphrase Tenacious D―reputedly killed a goat with mind bullets. (That’s telekinesis, Kyle.) This all started when Jim Channon, a combat veteran, found the military demoralized in the wake of Vietnam. He embarked on a “fact-finding mission” to determine ways in which the Army could become more “cunning.” Working for the Pentagon, he “infiltrated” the inchoate New Age movement; the result: a 1979 guidebook for military conduct which advised that soldiers enter enemy territory bearing lambs, hugs, and paeans of peace. Troopers were also to adopt Gandhi’s dietary habits, master such tricks as walking through walls, and “fall in love with everyone.”

This may sound about as efficacious as placating the Taliban with Hare Krishnas from the airport, but it struck a chord with shell-shocked vets, some of whom in high places. Soon, the military was investing in more parapsychological research than the SyFy Channel, and training a cadre of “Jedi Knights,” who had everything short of light-sabers. Straughan and Heslov catch up with these fluke Skywalkers roughly 20 years after the Knights’ formation in 1983. In this fictionalized account, Ewan McGregor plays a small-town reporter who tries to embed himself in Iraq to spite his ex-wife (who’s now married a one-armed man). He stumbles upon Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who tells the reporter his backstory with the Jedi—illustrated for us in a series of flashbacks. Trying to get a scoop, the reporter shadows Cassady’s undercover mission, unable to determine whether his subject is a magician or a lunatic. They get kidnapped by insurgents; lost in the desert; and rescued by an offshoot of the long-disbanded Jedi, headed by Cassady’s old arch-nemesis, Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who’s kept their burnt-out guru, Django (Jeff Bridges), on retainer. But Hooper has been seduced by the dark side: He’s a private contractor. Rather than using his hippie-dippy training to stave off cruelty, Hooper is engaged in psychological torture―detainees get locked into a solitary-confinement chambers where strobe lights flash to the tune of Barney’s “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family…”

If you don’t know how to take all this, you’re not alone; neither do the filmmakers. This talented troupe has put its faith in Heslov―a fellow actor―who co-wrote and appeared with Clooney in Good Night and Good Luck.; but Goats is bad luck. Its source material is so bizarre that it practically winks at filmmakers like a stranger with candy. But it’s Pandora’s box of chocolates―a Jedi mind trick. For the best possible outcome, you’d need someone at the controls who tore out his hair in frustration upon hearing the story―someone who could play the whole thing at a cool deadpan, with the journalist not as a skeptical advocate, but the one sane guy in the room who’s driven to meltdown. (This would suit the talents and manias of the Coen brothers beautifully; this story even has a New Age twist on fatalism.) Of course, the drawback is that this technique would require some undaunted douchebagery; and though that doesn’t necessarily preclude sympathetic Jedi, it would probably require them to be painted as self-delusional Manchurian candidates―something of a snub to people who are alive and well and have good intentions at heart. (Plus it would be a left-right faux pas, a defacement of both the support-our-troops ribbons and make-love-not-war bumper stickers.) Heslov and Straughan are simply too polite to make this material satisfying. Too genteel to make broadsides, they blow little lefty raspberries at military contractors instead—as in one clever scene, in which two rival teams of American opportunists start a firefight at a gas station and blame it on the Iraqis.

If only the filmmakers had pumped some more absurdity out of that gas-station sequence. Goats isn’t a satire—not of the Jedi at least—because the filmmakers merely transcribe events from the documentary without embellishment. They don’t expose the absurdity; they can’t find a proper tone. Are we to laugh at detainees who will contract P.T.S.D. from having the music of a prehistoric purple chanteur burned into their brains? And when they’re triumphantly set free, are we to assume they were all innocent victims who were wrongly apprehended? (Even dangerous criminals can be grossly mistreated.) Then there’s Cassady, who wants to use his powers for good, but suggests stabbing a captor’s neck with a pen as a psychological deterrent. Though consistent with the documentary, it sticks out of his characterization like a sore thumb with a razor-sharp nail. Heslov is as lost in the desert as his heroes are. He has a sturdy cinematographer (Roger Elswit) and a stellar cast (which includes a more prominent actor-director) to lean on, but he drops the ball they toss to him. Though he deserves props for his good intentions, and this exercise will hopefully teach him to put those to better use, I wish his instincts as a writer and actor had informed his direction.

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Pirate Radio

Pirate Radio is like a confirmation of those highly embellished stories parents tell about how cool things were when they were growing up. In other words, it’s a fairly lame movie. The English writer-director Richard Curtis has taken more liberties with history than the film (or its ads) indicates, but if you were to remove the balderdash about how the Brits banned rock and roll on the radio at the height of the ’60s, this shipload of nostalgia would keel over. Instead, it’s crewed by a fairly decent bunch of British comics, under the command of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the token American loafer. Because these A.M. buccaneers are—supposedly—the sole purveyors of pop on the airwaves, a whopping half of Great Britain tunes in to their broadcasts from a ship on the North Sea, where our heroes are free from bureaucrats’ attempts to impugn them for reasons that seem purely prudish. The movie adopts the bromides of the time, save for the old aphorism that you can’t trust anyone over 30; now that anyone who said that in 1966 is probably twice that age (or older), the movie has been envisioned as a Peter Pan fantasy for the middle-aged, complete with a pirate ship and colorful striped pantaloons.

In essence, Pirate Radio is S.S. Animal House, with the super-senior frat boys replaced by superannuated swingers. They even have a buzz-killing dean: an old-blood bureaucrat embodied by Kenneth Branagh. But Curtis drowns out anything “bawdy,” “raucous” or “raunchy” with sickeningly good-natured bonhomie, and even tosses in a guileless teenage castaway—recently expelled from a repressive boys’ school—so that he can learn valuable life lessons from the sagging nonconformists. There are some funny bits, but Curtis hasn’t the knack for dirty humor; after every naughty nuance, he expects a little pat on the head. “Good boy! You made another lesbian joke! What a good wittle fwee spirit!” It’s sort of cute that everyone is so obscenely well-intentioned (aside from, of course, the Victorian-era-leftover villains), but you know that all this youthful innocence comes straight out of a baggie labeled “baby-boomer catnip.” When Hoffman delivers the inevitable “these are the best days of our lives” spiel, viewers born after 1955 will likely get seasick. However, the tale-telling parents in the audience can feel cool and daring while laughing at a moralist named Twatt (who’s too square to be in on the joke), and still be swept away by the those-were-the-days schmaltz. The movie is set in a vacuum (Vietnam is mentioned once, in passing), but its familiar soundtrack makes all this chummy reverie seem wistfully authentic.

Pirate Radio is waterlogged with cheese, but at least it isn’t a cheat like Taking Woodstock, which was like a tall glass of buttermilk. This movie benefits from its ensemble cast, and they help keep the picture afloat. Bill Nighy might come off as gay to American audiences—as so many British actors do—but his fey sticktoitiveness evokes the sort of bohemian spirit whose cultivation seems hip at any age; and Nick Frost—best known as Simon Pegg’s bumpkin foil—uses his corpulence as a come-on. It’s such an absurd trick that it just might work. When he’s caught sleeping with a buddy’s girl, he flashes an “I made a booboo” grin that suggests a puppy who’s peed on the floor. His Dave has become reconciled to the fact that his sexual magnetism is simply beyond his control; flabby Frost gives the most effortless parody of the sexual revolution that I’ve ever seen. On the other end of the spectrum, drawing on his stagey bravado, Branagh rolls his Rs resplendently. Every crisp consonant this stalwart utters pays homage to the Queen’s English. Branagh plays this martinet as the consummation of Basil Fawlty’s dreams—just as the shipboard stewards of life, liberty and the pursuit of fun are probably the consummation of Curtis’s dreams. Maybe after this hippie hangover, Curtis will wake up and remember that he’s still the man behind Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Rock on!

A Serious Man

It has not been easy to put to words what made A Serious Man, the new film written and directed by the Coen brothers, such a drag, but perhaps I can get at it this way. Their last movie, Burn After Reading, was a delightful farce about self-serious bureaucrats and needling nincompoops, but the playful tone was quickly shattered by the unceremonious and all-too-graphic murder of an innocent—as if the filmmakers splashed cold water on us so we’d sober up from their own antics. They then capped the movie off with a pat bit of exposition that flatly denounced the whole plot as a load of nonsense, unworthy of comprehension—I was now being thrown into a cold shower, and I wasn’t even buzzed. I knew the burlesque was frivolous, but isn’t that the fun of it? It’s as if the Coens had served us dessert, and then belittled at us for eating it. Can’t we enjoy our ice cream without a punitive lesson in metaphysics, which is less a vitamin supplement and more a poison pill?

A Serious Man is like being pushed into a frigid lake. It has its moments, and its lapidary competence is nearly unassailable; but the damn thing weighs down on you like a sumo wrestler. It’s a demanding movie that inhabits your thoughts after it’s over, and I hesitate to begrudge it that; but they bounce back to the film rather than spring your mind forward. It’s an intellectual loop-the-loop that doesn’t increase your knowledge—it delimits it.

There’s really nothing else that can be done when you update the story of Job, laid now in suburban Minneapolis, circa 1967. This time around it’s Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg)—a milquetoast physics professor and family man—whose life falls apart. But two big players in Job’s tale are discreetly absented from A Serious Man: God and Satan, the gamblers who bet on whether he’ll crack. The Coens’ obsession with fate isn’t tacked on, as it was in Burn After Reading; it’s at the core of the conception. Given that the Coens have so obviously proven themselves as talented storytellers in the past, this fatalism seems—to me, at least—rather toxic. For starters, it’s an easy way out: You don’t need to have convincing characters with organic motivations if your point is that everything is consigned to some random higher power that exceeds the bounds of our understanding. I say this as neither an atheist nor a religionist, and certainly not as someone who thinks that movies should prove or disprove the existence of divine powers—something that, to its credit, this movie never does. But, as someone interested in dramatic fiction rather than pseudo-religious parables, this film is a cop-out. The Coens have mistaken theme for plot and constructs for characters; I came out feeling parched for something other than spiked holy water.

Within the terms the movie sets for itself, it doesn’t have to be coherent. Audiences and other critics seem to appreciate the movie’s ineffability; it’s like a Whitman’s Sampler with desultory little nuggets of Kafka and Borges, the Talmud and Jefferson Airplane—and, yes, Cormac McCarthy*. It’s delectation for your intellection, but nothing quite adds up. One of Larry’s pupils (David Kang), who understands physics but not the mathematics integral to it, seems—like Larry’s shiftless brother (Richard Kind), who has a meticulous, incomprehensible scheme worked out to cheat at gambling, but can’t seem to get his life on track (in part, perhaps, because he’s apparently gay); or Sy, the touchy-feely unctuous creep (a very funny Fred Melamed), who steals both Larry’s wife and the movie’s title (an indication that he “gets” Judaism); or the platitudinous rabbis whose bogus wisdom Larry seeks—to grasp something that Larry can’t. And the audience can’t. And the Coens can’t. In that sense, A Serious Man is actually a rather humble movie—or it would be if the Coens didn’t cast themselves as God.

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