Friday, March 05, 2010

An Odd Couple

As you have been reading my "rush to the Oscars" review series, you have noted that I am pairing the movies. The next two movies might seem not to fit together in anyway at all--but, ah, let me show you my masterful compare/contrast of Up In the Air and A Serious Man.

A couple of years ago, I
posted about teaching and giving an exam in which I posed a compare/contrast question. I had asked the students to compare and contrast the characters of Oedipus Rex and Hamlet, from their respective eponymous dramas. I was stunned when one of the students simply gave me a list of comparisons, no contrasts. So much for compare/contrast. LauraHinNJ wisely commented that students have to be taught the technique of compare/contrast.

True, true.

What that episode did to me, in addition to my making certain that from there on out in teaching, I ALWAYS covered compare/contrast, is that I tend to look at two things and immediately look for ways to compare/contrast. It's downright fun.

So, herewith.

Up in the Air has as its central subject a man--Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney--whose job is to travel all over the country delivering the awful news to people that they have been fired. No, he doesn't actually tell them they are fired--he says their position no longer exists, and they are being let go. While to most of us that would be the most depressing job imaginable, Ryan actually enjoys it. He loves travelling, racking up the frequent flyer miles that go along with it. You learn that he has a goal to reach a certain level of miles.
You also learn that Ryan has shed every conceivable attachment in his life--in addition to his job firing people, he gives motivational talks. He uses the image of a backpack, and asks people to fill up the backpack, then to empty it. He applies the same rationale to personal relationships--fill up the backpack, and then empty it. Attachments are impediments to his goals.


Until he meets two women: one is a woman, Alex (Vera Farmiga), in a job that requires her to travel all over the country. In their initial meeting, they spend time comparing the various credit cards and special deal clubs they belong to--their conversation is animated about frequent flyer benefits, which car rental place has the best deal, which hotel has the most perks. They are admirably suited for each other, and--predictably--end up romantically involved.

The other woman is the newest employee at the company that employs Ryan--she is Natalie (Anna Kendrick): fresh-faced, full of enthusiasm, ready to tear into the firing work by overhauling it through a computer conference approach. Ryan insists she has to see the real world, so he takes her on the road with him.

Ryan has everything figured out, his life is a set pattern, he needs no one in his life, his goal the frequent flyer miles he earns. But, of course, life has a way of taking its own direction. What was so certain for him begins to unravel. He begins to think about possibly changing his disconnected life by making a commitment to Alex--I will not spoil what happens next.

At the end of the movie, we see Ryan staring at the destination board in an airport--and we wonder, where is he headed? Where will life take him? Now that he has reached his mileage goal, what else lies out there for him? The answer is not at all clear.

A Serious Man centers of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) who has NO clue what to do with
his life. He is the complete opposite of Ryan in Up in the Air. Larry is clueless. He is loaded down with attachments--a whining wife, who wants to divorce him and take up with a widower, a freeloading brother who seems to spend his life in the bathroom draining a cyst, a moaning daughter who wants to get in the bathroom to wash her hair, and a nagging son who wants his father to fix the television antenna so the son can watch F-Troop. (Ah, F-Troop--miss that show!)

While Larry teaches at a mid-western university, thus having a job that should give him some idea of what to do. He is up for tenure and very uncertain about the vote. When he fails a Korean student, the student comes to petition to get a passing grade. When he leaves Larry's office, he leaves behind an envelope with money. Larry tries to return the money, then worries about the effect of this potential bribe.

As if the impending tenure vote weren't enough, he returns home from work to his wife's announcement that she wants a divorce. The news clearly hits Larry as completely unanticipated--he had no idea anything was wrong. At his wife's urging, he moves to a motel, taking his strange brother with him. One day, a friend who is encouraging Larry suggests that he talk with a rabbi.

That sets Larry on the quest to talk to the rabbis at his synagogue. The first rabbi is young and as clueless as Larry. He can give no help. The second rabbi talks at length and with deep philosophical import telling him the tale of a dentist who discovered Hebrew letters inscribed on the inside of a Gentile's teeth. What does it mean? asks Larry. Who knows--says the rabbi. The dentist never found out. The third rabbi then must be the one who will help Larry, but the third rabbi refuses to see him.

Just as his life appears to be crumbling into nothingness, things suddenly begin to turn in Larry's favor. His wife's widower "lover" is killed, so she no longer appears eager to leave Larry, his son successfully completes his bar mitzvah, the head of the department where Larry works hints that he will get tenure--maybe everything will work out.

But, no--this is a Coen Brothers' movie (which means we should have been forewarned). You, dear reader, can see the ending for yourself. Besides, any movie that has an elderly rabbi solemnly intoning the lyrics of a Jefferson Airplane song can't be all bad!

So, Ryan and Larry. One man with a clear path in life, unencumbered by relationships. The other man weighed down by too many family obligations, and totally befuddled at the meaning of life. One man reaching his mileage goal, but not really having a destination beyond that. The other presumably gaining his tenure, but with trouble lurking just around the corner.

Both of these movies pose the question--what is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Is that all there is?
One more review coming: we will be watching The Hurt Locker, and I will review it along with Inglourious Basterds, which we saw a couple of months ago.
As I noted in a comment on the first movie review post, we have chosen to skip Avatar, District 9 and Precious. Can't see them all. I can do without James Cameron's ego, I am not a big fan of sci-fi, even if it is intended as a metaphor, and some just seem too painful to watch.


LauraHinNJ said...

I really wish I could make an intelligent comment, but I'm soo not a movie person!

I do hope to see Precious, though...

Anvilcloud said...

Hah! and Avatar is the only one I've seen. I still think the visuals are worth it, despite the story.

Anyway, as we're going to see a movie today, I am thinking that you need a rating system, not just a description. We have thought of Crazy Heart, but does the shorter review signify something?