A Serious Man (2009)
In the trailer for the Coen brothers' latest, the sound of family man Larry Gopnik's head, thumped against a chalkboard, soundtracked two-minutes of impending domestic and professional disaster, eventually reaching a nearly unbearable tension relieved only by Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love." It was one of the most affective trailers I've ever seen, but stretch that feeling to 90+ minutes, and it feels more like the audience's head is the one being pummeled by the tragedy and travails of Gopnik's slowly disintegrating life. It's an effective pummeling, we watch as his family, career and Jewish religion methodically fall apart in 1960s small-town Iowa. We see one institution after another fail Larry, but after more than an hour of both subtle and not-so subtle misery, I ask, why in the world do I need to subject myself to picket-fence and chrome-fender hell? What am I learning here other than that some men are so ineffectual and nebbish that even when they're staring down the path of certain disaster they refuse to put a foot down? I suppose the very fact that the Coens pushed me to a point that required asking these questions of purpose and life and art means that the bastards, once again, did their fucking job, even if that means filming one of the most nihilistic endings I have ever seen (or was it?) B+
Crank 2: High Voltage (2009)
Co-directors Neveldine-Taylor's first Crank film was a gloriously over-the-top send-up (hopefully) of Mountain Dew-Xtreme-Doritos action movies. Crank 2 is more of the same, but the shtick has gone cold, and the depths they must plunge to continuously shock the audience often becomes just mean, ugly, increasingly bloody — and eventually just not fun anymore. C-
The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Director Rian Johnson doesn't completely fulfill the promise he showed with his endlessly inventive debut, the film-noir-via-modern-high school mashup Brick, but he shows increased range by replacing some of his edgier instincts with at-times nauseating whimsy and over-the-top production. As with Wes Anderson, Johnson constantly reminds his audience that this is a theater production, Ta-duh! His sets often look consciously like sets, the dialogue is, like in Brick, stylized and pointed, and the story is pure fantasy.
The Brothers Bloom follows two brothers who begin pulling cons before middle school. Older brother Stephen (Mark Ruffulo) writes the cons as elaborate stories where everyone gets what they want in the end, complete with the kind of symbolism found in "Russian novels," great betrayals, emotional climaxes and even a denouement. His brother, Bloom (Adrian Brody) is written into his cons as the charmer, the womanizer, the rogue. After decades playing games, Bloom is tired of living someone else's stories and vows, of course, to never pull another con again. Stephen drags Bloom back into the fold with one final con, the manipualtion of a beuatiful, rich shut-in (Rachel Weisz) who has never much left her parent's mansion, had any fun, nor shared her wealth with anyone else.
The Brothers Bloom mostly avoids the dreaded She's All That moment — when the con man tells the woman "at first it was a bet, but now I really love you" — by leading the audience down that obvious path before cutting through several twists and turns. The Brothers Bloom is a story about stories, dreams and living the life you want to live, though at points it would have been nice to get lost in a film that doesn't constantly remind its audience that a story arc is nothing more than a magnificent con of manipulated emotions. B
The Invention of Lying (2009)
The premise is the movie here, with plot often an afterthought and character development not an issue because everyone is basically the same — mean inner monologues become out-loud conversations, and every insecurity and judgmental thought is spoken. The Invention of Lying often confuses over-sharing with honesty. If you think someone is ugly, keeping it to yourself is not necessarily lying, it's simply not talking. Of course, the brutally "honest" conversations during a date between writer/director/star Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner — sample dialogue — "you are fat and have a snub nose, we will not be having sex tonight, and you probably won't get a kiss" provides a few laugh-out-loud lines but also a lot of cruelty. Often, the most enjoyable parts are the details. In a world without lies, advertising takes on a whole new strategy, movies are limited to narrators reading the most popular stories from the non-fiction canon, and there is no religion. But eventually even a premise-as-plot has to justify its run-time, and that's when the Invention of Lying strays into a half-assed, satirical parable of religion and it's function as the opiate of the masses. Gervias never makes a cogent argument for or against the ultimate lie of heaven and hell, instead landing occasionally clever jabs against the "man in the sky," and his followers. C+