I managed to catch two of last year's Oscar nominees over the weekend. If you, like me, find yourself playing catchup on films, here's some brief reactions for ya:
A Serious Man - This is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking films I've seen in years. I really recommend it to everyone, although I wonder how relatable some of it is for non-Jews. But that said, the movie really isn't about Judaism per se so much as about the search for meaning. The main character, Larry Gopnik, can't understand why so many things keep going wrong in his life, and he's constantly searching for some sort of message from God about what he's done to invite His anger. The movie seems to answer Gopnik's question in two different ways. First, what you view as your misfortune might in fact be someone else's. Gopnik wonders why people keep dying around him, but of course that affects the dying far more than it affects him. Second, the very act of searching for meaning might be causing you further misery. This seemed to be the lesson of the final scene (which I had to re-watch several times), in which Gopnik's son is apparently watching God's wrath while listening to a Jefferson Airplane song (the film's recurrent mantra) and doesn't hear a call to safety coming from behind him.
I've read a number of reviews trying to compare this film to other Coen brothers works, but it actually reminded me of David Mamet's Homicide (1991), in which a Jewish detective's search to understand symbolism leads him to abandon his professional commitments and make catastrophic errors.
The Blind Side - I'm sure I'd have enjoyed this film much more had I not watched A Serious Man the night before. Not that there's anything wrong with it. It's a wonderful story very nicely played out, and the acting is superior all around. But there's not a single moment of moral ambiguity in it. It plays out as a kind of Erin Brokovitchy TV movie, where it's very clear what the right action is and everyone who stands in the main characters' way is clearly wrong.
Just as an example, Leigh Anne Tuohy, the white suburban mom who adopts the abandoned African American teenager Michael Oher, is shown at two points having lunch with a small group of fellow wealthy white women. Tuohy, as played by Sandra Bullock, doesn't seem to have anything in common with the others -- she's a sincere Christian who believes in helping others; they're a bunch of uptight biddies with hints of aristocratic racism slipping past their lips once in a while. Now, we're led to believe that Tuohy has been changed through her relationship with Oher, but I had a hard time believing any of the other women would have invited Oher into her house in the first place. It's not clear what she ever had in common with these women. So she's an angel and they're jerks who exist only to make her appear more angelic.
Now, maybe the Tuohy's story really was that simple, but I kind of doubt it. Still, maybe I'm being unfair. This is a family film and it tells a good story about some good people doing a very good thing. So go see it and bring your teenage kids. But don't expect much complexity or uncertainty. That's why we have the brothers Coen.