TIFF #4: Two Clooneys and Two Coens

September 13, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

George Clooney and the Coen Brothers: perfect together. Except this year, they're not. Clooney is here in two films and the Coens (both of them, working as a pair as usual) are also at Toronto, but their projects are not related. Also here is Clooney's frequent collaborator, Steven Soderbergh, with The Informant!, but that stars Matt Damon, not George Clooney. Nevertheless, even though Clooney isn't working with the Coens or Soderbergh, he's making choices they would likely feel comfortable with. Clooney has gained enough clout that he can now blaze his own path and pick projects that appeal to him, and he is showing a distinct preference for material that's a little off-the-wall.

The title The Men Who Stare at Goats in and of itself should be an indication that this movie is not directed squarely at mainstream multiplex-goers. The film is more than a little odd but it has fun with its offbeat premise and moves along breezily until it gets bogged down in the third act. (Watch out for the appearance of Kevin Spacey - that's when the momentum starts to flag as a more direct focus on narrative undermines some of the wit and comedy.)

The Men Who Stare at Goats opens with the following caption: "More of this is true than you would believe." It then introduces us to Ann Arbor journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who is looking for the story of his life. His quest leads him to Kuwait, where he hopes to become embedded with a group of troops entering Iraq. There he meets Lyn Cassady (Clooney), an ex-Special Ops military officer who claims to have been part of the "New Earth Army," a covert group of "psychic spies" who use their "Jedi mind powers" to influence others. Cassady agrees to take Wilton with him on a mission across the border. Along the way, he tells him about the New Earth Army's history and its commanding officer, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who ran a very different kind of unit.

The first half of The Men Who Stare at Goats is superior to the second half. For about 45 minutes, the film is content to play with the absurdity of the concept of having a covert group of "psychic spies." It also works brilliantly as a parody of the military and its rules and structure. Unfortunately, past the half-way point, the film begins to pay more attention to plot and, when it does this, the humor decreases. The more The Men Who Stare at Goats focuses on developing and advancing the narrative, the less enjoyable it is because Cassady's "mission" turns out to be rather uninteresting.

The movie contains one of the best in-jokes of recent times. The psychic spies go by a number of different names, among them the "remote viewers" and the "Jedis." This allows for multiple references to Star Wars. Of course, it will be lost on no one in the audience that Ewan McGregor played none other than the young Obi-Wan in the prequel trilogy. So this creates a little amusement every time McGregor and Clooney discuss the Jedis and Jedi powers. McGregor provides us with this quote: "What's a Jedi Warrior?" He then ends up pursuing the path of the Jedi at the end. It would be interesting to know whether director Grant Heslov (Clooney's collaborator for Good Night, and Good Luck) and screenwriter Peter Straughan were aware of McGregor's pending involvement when those lines were written. If they were, it was an amusing way to work in one of the actors most (in)famous roles. If they weren't, it was a case of an eyebrow-raising coincidence.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of those films that's enjoyable to watch "in the moment," but which doesn't stay with the viewer long after it's over. During the course of a film festival, that means it has a lifespan of a few hours (although it will fare better when it reaches theaters next month). So I had to write this discussion before seeing anything else, lest its memory fade under the weight of the better and worse productions yet to come.

Clooney's other film is a little more conventional, as one can tell from the title: Up in the Air. Still, with director Jason Reitman behind the camera making his follow-up to Juno (a more successful one, I might add, than Diablo Cody's), this is far from 100% formula. It's also the best film to cross my path during the festival's early days. Hopefully, there are more like this on the horizon or just over it. A few films like Up in the Air are enough to make the long trip to Toronto seem worth it.

Reitman brings the same mixture of comedy and drama to this movie that he brought to Juno. There's some funny, laugh-out-loud material here, but the characters and their situations are well-developed. None of the three principals ever veer in the direction of caricature and Clooney is especially convincing as the lead. Playing a role 180 degrees opposite to the one he essays in The Men Who Stare at Goats, Clooney reminds us why he is among this generation's most consistent and reliable actors.

Clooney plays corporate layoff officer Ryan Bingham. He spends his days traveling from city-to-city and, for a fee, he delivers news of layoffs to soon-to-be-departed employees. He lives his life in hotels, airplanes, and airports, saying "All the things you hate about flying are warm reminders I'm home." In the past year, he has spent 322 days on the road and 43 "miserable" days in the one-bedroom unit he rents in Omaha. He has no time for relationships or possessions, and his one goal in life is to collect 10,000,000 miles so he can become the seventh member of that oh-so-rare club.

Two events add chaos to Ryan's ordered existence. The first is a chance meeting with fellow traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), who expresses herself this way: "Think of me as yourself only with a vagina." In Alex, Ryan finds someone with whom he might actually be able to develop a semi-normal relationship. Meanwhile, at home base, Ryan's boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), has decided to implement a radical new strategy proposed by new hire Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) - using teleconference technology to allow remote layoffs. Determined to prove to her that this is not the way to go, Ryan brings Natalie on the road with him with unexpected results.

Up in the Air is one of the best movies to deal with the inhumanity of the way corporations cut work forces. The parody is razor-sharp and unflinching. Reitman nails his target and drives home each spike with resolute force. Ryan represents a fascinating specimen - a product of modern technology and today's culture - someone whose goal is almost the exact opposite of the "American dream." He doesn't want the house, the wife, or the children. He is almost estranged from his two sisters. And his relationships consist of one-night stands in airport hotels. He's a master at what he does yet, because of the way Clooney plays him, we sympathize with this guy, even though he thrives on the misery of others.

At times, Up in the Air looks and feels a little like a romantic comedy, but that's illusory. Ryan's relationship with Alex is a secondary plot - a way to illustrate things about him and to provide some tightly-scripted dialogue. (There is a brilliant sequence in which Alex and Natalie detail their very different expectations of the ideal mate.) The movie earns its ending; it may come as a surprise to some viewers, but it is foreshadowed and makes perfect sense in hindsight. So score two wins for Clooney at this year's festival. Up in the Air is the better movie of the two, but The Men Who Stare at Goats is also worthy of an expenditure of time and money.

And what about the Coens? They continue to amaze with their versatility. A Serious Man represents another change in course for the brothers. After working with star-studded casts for a number of consecutive features, they turn their attention to character actors for this outing. There's not an A-lister to be found in the credits; the best-known names are Adam Arkin and Richard Kind. The lead, Michael Stuhlbarg, is a relative unknown. The casting choices represent a stroke of genius, though, since the absence of familiar faces allows the Coens to fully immerse their audience in the time (1967) and place (the U.S. Midwest) of the story.

A Serious Man is like a modern-day re-enactment of the Book of Job with college physics professor Larry Gropnik (Stuhlbarg) struggling against the multiple forces arrayed against him. He's up for tenure, but someone is submitting negative anonymous letters urging the committee to deny him. His wife has decided to leave him for their friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). He sees a neighbor sunbathing nude but when he works up the courage to talk to her, nothing happens. His brother (Kind), who is developing a "probability map of the universe," is an albatross around his neck. And his son wants nothing more than that Larry re-align the aerial TV antenna so "F-Troop" comes in clearly.

As indignity and absurdity build upon one another in Larry's life, we get the sense that things are escalating to a boiling point. There's a lot of Jewish religious doctrine in the film, but not so much that the Gentile will feel lost. The Coens have a very specific message they're trying to convey with the precisely scripted story, but that meaning isn't decipherable until the abrupt ending. (It's also not until that point that the inclusion of a seemingly unrelated 10-minute prologue becomes evident.) As is often the case with the Coens' work, there's as much going on beneath the surface as there is on top of it. A Serious Man is challenging cinema, but it's also rewarding. It's just as funny as last year's Burn After Reading, although some of the comedy is more intellectual. And, as is always the case, the story takes its share of sudden, unexpected turns - usually as a result of deaths.

Perhaps the most interesting element of A Serious Man is how multilayered the storyline is. Initially, it appears to be relatively straightforward, but the Coens throw in seemingly irrelevant details that have payoffs, even when the nature of the payoff is not immediately obvious. There are also some wonderful throw-away moments, like a blackboard "joke" associated with the uncertainty principle. There's a dream sequence that is not telegraphed as such. And a rabbi's deep words of philosophy are taken directly from Jefferson Airplane. While other filmmakers could get away with stuff like this, I'm not sure anyone else could put it all together in such an effective manner. A Serious Man's lack of brand name actors will limit its multiplex playtime, but the participation of the Coens should keep this quirky and original motion picture out of the obscurity into which many movies like this sadly tumble. See it back-to-back with either of the Clooney films and it will be an afternoon or evening well-spent.

The trailers for The Men Who Stare at Goats, Up in the Air and A Serious Man: