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I am not a member of the Academy. I am instead but a lowly professional economist. Which means not only do studios not send me dozens of screeners but every time I go to the movies I’m always wondering if it’s worth my money.

But today I am pretending I’m a member of the acting branch and casting my ballot for Best Actor.

Acting nominations are made by ranking up to five actors in each category. If the ballot’s number one choice does not have the support needed to receive a nomination, the ballot is counted instead as a vote for the #2 choice, and so on. There is no guidance as to how to separate between Lead and Supporting categories; that determination is left up to individual voters.

1. Matt Damon, The Informant!

Damon puts on the pounds and a mustache for this film, but it’s his complex performance and not the gut that make it so memorable. His squirrelly character is outrageous but not flashy and even though he’s exasperating we’re always able to empathize.

2. Peter Sarsgaard, An Education

I’m not sure whether this is really Lead or Supporting. If I had a ballot I’d put him in both categories just to make sure. He must walk a thin line as a character that’s both charming enough to win over a teenage girl – and the audience, to some extent – but also creepy enough to be trying to win over a teenage girl. At least Damon got a little recognition and a Golden Globe nod; the utter lack of respect this awards season for Sarsgaard is confounding.

3. Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man

This film is essentially two hours of the world shitting on the main character so the man portraying him better be someone the audience wants to watch. The role calls for Stuhlbarg’s exasperation to forever increase while never overcoming his nebbishness and I think Stuhlbarg does a great job of keeping us all frustrated but empathetic.

4. George Clooney, Up in the Air

I’m always impressed by Clooney’s quiet performances. He’s one of those uber-famous, attractive Hollywood types that it’s easy to forget is damn good at what the does. He’s interesting in zany roles like in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Men Who Stare at Goats, but there’s so much talent in his subtle acting that requires a role like this one or in Michael Clayton to really display.

5. Paul Rudd, I Love You, Man

Not a conventional choice,but the man needs some recognition for his wonderfully awkward performance. I don’t think it’s easy to pull of bumbling faux machismo. Most comedies in this vein feel a little rough around the edges in the performances, like the punchlines don’t come across quite polished enough. No offense to the Jonah Hills of the world, but Rudd has the comedic chops and smooth delivery that are often lacking even in the comedies I love. Rudd was so great in this and Role Models and I hope he gets more and more leading roles.

Next on my list were Sam Rockwell for Moon and Michael Sheen for The Damned United.

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After disliking No Country for Old Men and darn near loathing Burn After Reading, I thought maybe I stopped liking the Coen Bros. altogether.  But after dwelling on A Serious Man for a little bit now, I think they just have a completely different sensibility than I do, and I can’t decide if that means they are wrong.  More specifically, what for the Coens might be sublimely absurd is for me dumb (Burn After Reading) or inconsequential (the other two).  I did like A Serious Man more than their recent prior output, but I still feel like I fail to connect with it on some fundamental level.  Though, to be fair, the subplot with the Asian student is probably one of the funniest things I’ve seen so far this year.

Take the opening scene, for example.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only theater patron to question if I had accidentally gone into the wrong movie.  And while it may have been the most entertaining scene of the movie, I have absolutely no idea why it is in the film.  I mean, yes, I could probably BS something about thematic elements, but really, there’s no reason it is in there.

As for the story proper, it is interesting enough, but feels a bit undercooked.  The premise, basically, is that a physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) goes through the somewhat-familiar crumbling of his life, albeit set in a 1960s Minnesota Jewish suburb, so it is a nebbish life.  His wife wants to leave him for another man.  His kids ignore him, other than to have him adjust the TV antenna.  He’s having trouble getting tenure.  His brother isn’t exactly all there.  His bills are piling up.

One thing I liked about A Serious Man is that it doesn’t play out as a typical movie might.  I’d say there are two normal resolutions to this scenario.  One is that the main character learns how to man up, wins back his wife, and wins over his kids, co-workers, and whomever else might be in the way.  The other is that the character realizes he needs to break free from his dreary existence.  In this case, he is fine with his no-good wife leaving him for some schmuck, because he knows at the end of the movie, she’ll realize her mistake and come crawling back,  because he’ll be off following his heart’s dream of being a scuba instructor, and tagging along will be the secretary/co-worker/best friend who was always there secretly pining away for him.

But A Serious Man isn’t like that at all.  Instead of the main character learning how to be a man, he more questions what a man really is.  I was asked if you had to be Jewish to appreciate the finer points of the movie and responded that I didn’t think so.  There are some scenes surrounding a bar mitzvah and some Hebrew is read aloud, but really, unless you have absolutely no idea what a rabbi is, I don’t think being raised Jewish is particularly relevant to getting the movie.  Except, thinking about it now, I don’t know.

Because I think there is a sensibility more prevalent in the Jewish culture than many others of the henpecked husband.  Obviously, yes, lots of guys from all religions are run over by their wives and lots of Jewish guys have the upper hand in their marriage.  But generally speaking, I think the stereotypes would confirm my assertion, at least.  In any case, all I’m trying to say is that the character’s reactions to the obstacles life throws him seemed “real” enough to me and I could see other people viewing it slightly differently.  Perhaps better put, you don’t have to be Jewish to best appreciate the film, just able to empathize with a browbeaten husband.

I was not a fan of the movies’ flourishes.  The first scene, the title screens with the rabbis, the fantasy pops, really, everything not focused on the main character felt distracting and inorganic.  As if they were compensating for the relatively spare story.  Which didn’t bother me as much as I might have expected, I even can justify the ending in ways I never could with No Country.

So where does that leave things?  Beats me.  Took me this long to piece together any sort of semi-coherent response to the film.  I think I liked it and I know I didn’t love it.  It won’t be in my top ten movies of the year, but if I limit the list to films with an actual shot at Oscar, I’m guessing A Serious Man will be right on the bubble.

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