"Art is not a thing; it is a way."

Elbert Hubbard

Saturday, July 3, 2010


A lot of the funny in anything funny quite often comes from the lack of intent to be funny. Take for example Toa Fraser's follow-up to his directorial debut, No. 2, a New Zealand dramedy about a family reunion of sorts featuring a veteran in Ruby Dee. Dean Spanley is a film with some similarities to the Dee starrer, with its familial relationship between a grown son (Jeremy Northam) and his ageing father (Peter O'Toole) at its core.

What makes this sojourn into Edwardian England as bitingly funny as it is, is the sheer honesty with which O'Toole delivers his curmudgeonly Fisk Senior. He is, with every flick of his eyebrow and turn of his tongue, a sharp and cranky old miser who complains about but eventually longs for, as does his housekeeper Mrs Brimley (Judy Parfitt), each Thursday spent with his son.

Entering the tale at this point are the questionable Dean Spanley (Sam Neill) and Wrather (Bryan Brown) who through a series of concocted plans become an integral part to the story as the Dean shows a peculiar reaction - he seemingly turns into a Welsh Spaniel from a past life - when drinking a rare wine. Fraser's film is a hodge-podge of sinister and silly antics but it all works, largely due to the lovely production design and the performances from the hugely experienced cast. O'Toole completely steals the film but he's followed closely behind by Parfitt who is again wonderfully droll in a potentially thankless role.

Again, what sets Dean Spanley apart from other recent attempts at comedy is its acceptance that at its heart there is natural humour present. There is no intent to force the humour and in effect no need to wring it for all its worth. Dean Spanley is a lovely one-hundred minute ride.

At one-hundred and five minutes and just as lovely, for the most part, is the Paul Rudd vehicle, I Love You, Man. Mining the rom-com genre for what it's worth but slightly turning it on its head as it focuses on a bro-mance, this silly but energetic comedy leaves pretension at the door and sails along quite nicely on the coattails of its star.

Never quite achieving the success Clueless seemed to promise him back in the mid-nineties, Rudd has hit all the home bases here using his cute puppy-dog-looks and innate ability to be kookily funny without being odd. The story is nothing new as a man searches for a best man for his wedding and the inclusion of Jason Segel (I just don't get him) is slightly wearisome, however, what the film amounts to is an easy-to-watch love fest of the friend order that soars at times - Rudd's dancing is charming - but crawls along the sewer ground at others - dog poo jokes! Really? - leaving one as satsified as they might be surviving on a diet of Jatz and cheese, that is full but yearning for some greens.

By its end Rudd manages to succeed in making you forget what it is you've been digesting. He's an actor who should be in more than he is and one would hope that perhaps this might afford him and cinema-goers more opportunities to bear witness to that.

What one might also bear witness to more of is the animation work of Tatia Rosenthal, an Israeli-born New York resident who co-wrote the screenplay for $9.99, an Israeli-Australian co-production, with Israeli writer Etgar Keret.

Set in a Sydney apartment complex it focuses on the life of Dave Peck (Samuel Johnson), an unemployed twenty-something who searches for the meaning of life through a book sold for $9.99 rather than through the experiences going on around him. Featuring a vulgar angel (Geoffrey Rush) and a bevy of beautiful men and women, some bizarrely de-boned after quite graphic sex, this exercise in the bizarre is a unique and odd experiment in stop-motion animation. Lovingly created with some ingenious production design and designed with an artist's eye $9.99 doesn't answer many of the questions it asks but it does take one on a smirk-worthy journey through the unexpectedly sweet.

In the end, man bean-bags and all, $9.99 is a feast for the eye of any animation fan who is even remotely interested in seeing what's beyond the world of Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks and even Studio Ghibli.

And interest in the remote is what has made the Coen boys the household names they are within those households, anyway, who have a bent towards the unusual. Somehow the Coens have, over their long career, been able to find the utterly strange in the everyday and transport that to our screens with both vision and wit. Whether it be the insanely idiotic desperation of a scamming husband in Fargo or the maniacal murderous ways of a cross-country travelling hitman in No Country For Old Men or the scheming vengeance of a barber in The Man Who Wasn't There, the Coens have delivered in one way or another in just about every film they've made. So what to make of the much-closer-to-home events in A Serious Man?

Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at a college struggling with his wife's infidelity, a conniving student, his son's foray into drugs, his daughter's preoccupation with non-Jewish facial features and a racist, ground-stealing neighbour is a man in the midst of mayhem. Add in other problems such as his burgeoning desire for his neighbour's sun-baking wife, a car accident and a series of unhelpful rabbis and you have a sheer life of disaster on your hands.

In the Coens' hands, however, the film is a masterpiece of humour very black in kind. For Stuhlbarg's Larry is a mess of a man finding it hard to stand up for himself and finding it hard to resist temptation as a result of his very weaknesses bringing him the grief in the first place.

The performances are all top-notch with Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus particularly good as Larry's family, however, it's the supporting performances of Amy Landecker, David Kang, Alan Mandell, Peter Breitmayer and Adam Arkin among others that lend an authenticity to the goings on that make A Serious Man work. Even the prologue of an arguing Jewish husband and wife works with Allen Lewis Rickman, Yelena Shmulenson and Fyvush Finkel hilariously on point in their brief screentime.

However, the film belongs to Stuhlbarg. A virtual unknown, his is a lived-in performance highlighting the mannerisms and nuances of his character which have contributed to him being literally walked over by everyone in his life. It's a bravura and wonderful comedic turn.

Performances aside, the Coens know how to make a film. A Serious Man is beautiful to look at, neatly edited and tightly scripted. It is obvious that this is a film with a lot of their past in it. The Jewish experience has rarely been seen so funnily presented on the big screen. One only has Joel and Ethan Coen to thank for that.




Toa Fraser


Jeremy Northam

Sam Neill

Bryan Brown

Peter O'Toole

Judy Parfitt

100 min

New Zealand ׀ UK




John Hamburg


Paul Rudd

Rashida Jones

Sarah Burns

Jason Segel

Greg Levine

Jaime Pressley

Jon Favreau

Jane Curtin

J.K. Simmons

105 min





Tatia Rosenthal


Roy Billing

Tom Budge

Joel Edgerton

David Field

Leon Ford

Samuel Johnson

Claudia Karvan

Jamie Katsamatsas

Anthony LaPaglia

Ben Mendelsohn

Henry Nixon

Barry Otto

Geoffrey Rush

Leeanna Walsman

78 min

Israel ׀ Australia




Ethan Coen ׀ Joel Coen


Michael Stuhlbarg

Richard Kind

Fred Melamed

Sari Lennick

Aaron Wolff

Jessica McManus

Peter Breitmayer

Brent Braunschweig

David Kang

Ari Hoptman

Alan Mandell

Amy Landecker

George Wyner

Michael Tezla

Stephen Park

Allen Lewis Rickman

Yelena Shmulenson

Fyvush Finkel

Simon Helberg

Adam Arkin

106 min

USA ׀ UK ׀ France

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