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Toronto '09: Day 2: Serious Harmony

Posted by Wesley Morris  September 11, 2009 06:24 PM

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If Canadians are nice (there’s really no “if” about that), the subway is not. To compensate for their alarming frequency (the T could take a lesson), the trains here need a snack. For the second ride in a row, I was almost eaten. My potential fellow passengers, presumably used to seeing such feedings, casually sprang into action and pried the doors apart to free one of my arms, one of my legs, and my bag. I survived. And caught the next train, which arrived two minutes later.

I was on my way to see "A Serious Man," the new Joel and Ethan Coen movie. Getting stuck in the door of a train is the sort of thing that might happen to its increasingly miserable protagonist, Larry Gopnik, were there a subway running to suburban Minneapolis in 1967. Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) teaches physics at the local college, and, on one level, the comedy here stems from the elaborate contraptions of humiliation the Coens build to make his life hell -- a divorce, a tenure procedure, his son's impending bar mitzvah, his daughter's threats to get a nose job, his sick houseguest brother, a Korean student threatening for higher grade.

On another level, this is supposed be the movie not only of the Coens' childhood. (Aaron Wolff plays Larry's diffident, pot-smoking, carrot-top son) but of their Jewishness (it's the less out-there cousin of "Barton Fink"). The characters are all a collection of "Jews you know." The nebbish, the nag, the hypochondriac, the cheapskate, the know-it-all. They rant. They kvetch. They waddle. There's a mounting intensity to the storytelling, as if all the archetypes were being brought to a boil. But it's as much of a heartless shrug as last fall's "Burn After Reading." That movie made me worry that the brothers had lost touch with humanity. This one suggests they've lost touch with their adolescent selves. But if nothing else they're true to their contemptuous sensibility.

Most people stayed in the vicinity to see The Other George Clooney Movie ("Up in the Air," based on the Walter Kirn novel and directed by Jason Reitman). I went off to see "Trash Humpers," the latest Harmony Korine ghetto fantasia. The movie has images to go with the title. A small gang of people in prosthetic geriatric drag thrust their middles against plastic garbage bins, telephone poles, and fences. They fellate tree branches and pretend to need crutches and wheelchairs. It looks like it was shot on a camcorder someone found in one those dumpsters and spliced together from a 25-year-old VHS cassette.

Korine, maybe feeling stung by the unduly negative response to "Mister Lonely," has reverted to the slum-dwelling cinema that led to "Gummo" and made him notorious in the first place. Korine is one of those auteurs who'll never get the benefit of the doubt. A friend of mine even objected to calling him an auteur. But he has a clear sensibility, and the grotesquerie afoot here is not much more alarming than what the Coens served up two hours before. The difference is that Korine makes works of true derangement, whereas, to me, the Coens are jesting.

The 25 percent or so of the audience that walked out of the Korine probably prefer the jest, and I don't blame them. "Trash Humpers" is too long even at 78 minutes, and Korine, who's 36, ought to have greater things to do than pranks with his art and his (or someone else's) money. But the movie is set in a Southern backwoods (Korine was raised in Nashville), and watching the depravity afoot, with these young people made up to look as old as their grandparents. Korine has puked up an allergic reaction to the Confederacy. He doesn't burn the flag. He just humps it to death.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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