The off kilter take on life that is Joel and Ethan’s vision does not always convince me. It amused me in “Blood Simple”, startled me in “No Country For Old Men” and worked its best magic on me in “Fargo”. Despite the charm of the Dude, “The Big Lebowski” failed to keep my interest.
Mixed reviews and friends hating this didn’t augur well. The first half of the film combines some weird and dissonant elements. A Yiddish folk story about dybbuks (surely they meant sendings?) failed to have any connection with the rest of the movie. It may have been meant as a portent – or even several of them – but it didn’t really draw reasonable links to the main plot and seemed oddly pointless.
Our hero has some bad luck. This may be a run of bad luck, or it may be a sending from outside forces. As always with the Coen brothers, some of the early detail is compelling. There are some nicely observed flourishes about mathematics teaching at university, tenure-track anxiety and youthful drug-taking. There is also the best use of several Jefferson Airplane songs in a film ever. And you won’t see another film this year in which a rabbi quotes Jefferson Airplane lyrics.
The trouble is that by the time you get to the rabbi quoting the Airplane, you’re looking at your watch and wondering when this will all end. Please, let it end. At 106 minutes, this film is a good 20 minutes too long and the second half drags.
It’s set in the 1960s, but continuity needs work. I am absolutely certain that women attending a bar mitzvah would have worn hats, as they did in church in those more formal times. If you were there, you remember these things and the script and the acting aren’t good enough to make you overlook errors.
There is some excellent ensemble acting. The separation, religious considerations of the divorce, funeral and bar mitzvah are all well-observed and the surreal dream scenes keep firmly grounded in reality. Our hero loses his wife and his home and has his job come under threat from letters full of educated innuendoes.
But none of the characters really engages your heart and mind. Some almost do, but not quite. I found myself rooting for the stereotypical community slut, but I didn’t even get a real sex scene to amuse me.
Should you see it? If you find the Jewish elements compelling, you may overlook the woeful continuity gaps. And you do get four Airplane songs, if that has meaning to you.
On the whole, I’d skip it, unless you are like me and have to see everything. Even though I won’t see anything else this year that namechecks Schrodinger’s Cat, the pretensions far outweigh the cute bits. This movie lacks consistent watchability and can’t decide if it’s trying to educate the kids and stay aimed at them or whether it wants to say something meaningful about life to adults. Either way, it fails.