By John M. Urbancich
“A Serious Man” made me giggle. Out loud. A lot. That’s why it’s my favorite film from the 34th annual Toronto Film Festival, which brought down the curtain on September 19, 2009. From the fabulous Coen Brothers (who, by the way, seemed as nebbishy as ever when Focus Features threw a party for their film at a swanky Prince Albert Avenue restaurant), “Man” features an extraordinary collection of Jewish players and familiar faces, mostly unknown except for TV character actor Richard Kind. Who?
The story, circa 1967 give or take a few misplaced rock tunes, follows an extremely put-upon and splendidly named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) – from an anonymous Midwestern city that looks a lot like the Coens’ Minneapolis hometown – just trying to deal with an ancient Yiddish curse. Maybe. Besides, ya gotta love any movie that uses the hilariously dumb ol’ “F Troop” TV show as a running gag.
Another Toronto film of note with a surprising number of laughs, not to mention memorably outrageous scenes, is Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” A pained Nicolas Cage returns to his early weird form in dominating the screen – in post-Katrina NOLA – as the drug-addled title character, dealing as much with bad guys as his own demons. It’s a hoot, but not really any kind of sequel to director Abel Ferrara’s wild and wooly 1992 feature “Bad Lieutenant” with Harvey Keitel. Of course, we certainly can dream about a subsequent follow-up to this one, can’t we?
Extremely close to my Top Two – but with nary a chuckle – are the very bleak “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” and “Blessed,” a little Australian film with grand performances from Frances O’Connor, Miranda Otto (“The Lord of the Rings” films), and Deborra-Lee Furness (Mrs. Hugh Jackman). As far as the latter is concerned, you may never hear from it again. Did anyone actually see it but me?
The former, however, collected Toronto’s “People’s Choice Award,” automatically making it an early awards favorite. Remember, last year’s Oscar darling, “Slumdog Millionaire,” won the “People’s” honor in 2008.
Want a little more Academy Awards talk by way of Toronto? Here goes:
Actor accolades (in addition to Cage and Stuhlbarg) – Robert Duvall (in a grand “Get Low”); George Clooney (“Up in the Air,” a very good film that falters slightly down the stretch): Colin Firth (in Tom Ford’s elegant “A Single Man”); Matt Damon (“The Informant!”); Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall (the sporty “Damned United”).
Actress attention (besides the truly “Blessed” trio) – maybe four from “Precious,” including Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, and even Mariah Carey; Julianne Moore (“Chloe” and “”A Single Man”); Penelope Cruz (“Broken Embraces”); and Vera Farmiga (“Up in the Air”).
Wish I saw them – “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee”; “Cairo Time”; “An Education”; and about a hundred more than the 28 films I did see.
Mostly sorry I did – “The Joneses”’ (predictably commercial with Demi Moore and David Duchovny); “Slovenian Girl” (though it was a kick to see the cholesterol dripping off some wonderfully photographed golden fried eggs, not to mention a list of credits with bunches of names ending in “c-i-c”); “Whip It” (showing off the diminutive cast of first-time director Drew Barrymore, including Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, and Eve, all playing Roller Derby gals.) Talk about appetizing breakfasts, anyone old enough to remember the original Blonde Bomber “Big” Joanie Weston knows that she could – and would – “whip” up all five for a tasty omelet on the boards.
And that’s a wrap!
[John M. Urbancich is a Cleveland-based reporter who has reviewed movies and written film features and celebrity profiles at Cleveland’s Sun Newspapers for 25 years. As a longtime member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, his work has also been appearing on the Sun News website for more than a decade. ]