Hardly the Best D.D. Can Do: 5.6

Characterization: 5
Author Empathy:4
Catharsis: 5
Sophistication: 7

This article concerns the first half of David Denby’s article, “Gods and Victims” for The New Yorker which ran on Oct 5, 2009.
*A caveat: as with all reviews that score under 7.0, my criticism below only applies to this one example of the writer’s work. Reviews over 7.0, conversely, speak to the overall skill of pen and fortitude of intellect of the writer in question.*

I sometimes find the New Yorker’s film review section to be utterly baffling. It’s also the section I often initiate myself into an issue with, despite it’s position near rag’s end, because a short word count makes it’s a relatively breezy read. I suspect that my approach may also be because I acknowledge a high risk of disagreeing with the film review, so I avoid that final impression of a magazine that is otherwise stellar (if intimidating and impossible to stay 100% on top of if, you know, you have even a single hobby).

This review of “A Serious Man” is emblematic of what I usually don’t like about what should probably be the most righteously accurate movie column there is. One: it’s inaccurate. Two: it’s spoiler-prone. To prove the point we can take a gander at the last sentence of each paragraph, an inarguably important spot to tell stuff to readers.

Graph 1: He won’t even sleep with the dragon-eyed but sexy and highly available woman next door who sunbathes naked.” –D.D.
I understand how having a hot, allegedly sexually promiscuous married woman next door to a miserable, near-divorced man is the equivalent of the gun in the drawer that must be fired. We’re at a time, though, when dramatists can refuse to squeeze that sexy little trigger as long as they deliberately address that refusal. The Coen brothers do so, and on top of that there is no incontrovertible evidence that the woman in question is looking to involve herself that deeply with a guy who is in a situation that would make a clinger out of the best swing—(RHYME ABORTED!) err, player.

Graph 2:But a schlep and a weeper is a hero impossible to stay interested in.” –D.D.
Let’s say right now that, no spoilers attached, Larry Gopnik (the hero in question) has reasons to break down and cry. Also this quote is stemming from the comparison of this film to the Old Testament gambling match that revolves around Job—specifically the moment when Job grows a spine and a shaking fist. This parallel is deliberate, but only a crazy person would assert that the Coens cannot differ at points (this should be obvious). Especially when this differentiation stems from the broken phone line to The Creator that was, I’m told, in better repair during the Torah times.

Graph 3:That song [“Somebody to Love”], plus dope and “F Troop” on TV, is all that keeps Danny going.” –D.D.
Yeah this is fair and valid until what is inarguably THE CLIMAX OF DANNY’S STORYLINE! That would seem unfair of me, because that is simply a statement of the film’s premise, if D.D. didn’t abuse this basic 1960s premise by focusing the next two paragraphs of his review on how unoriginal the movie is and ignoring the highly deft, brief, and original climax I’m referring to.

Graph 4: As a piece of moviemaking craft, ““A Serious Man”” is fascinating; in every other way, it’s intolerable.” –D.D.
As the author of a blog dedicated to summary judgments, it would be hypocritical of me to criticize D.D.’s major league claim. That said…it is mean and dumb and stupid and unthoughtful and I hate it. (Props are owed to the previous sentence, however, which is beautiful and is the second half of THE BEST MOMENT.)

The brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins uses super-hard focus and solid colors, and when Larry, perched on his roof, tries to straighten out the TV aerial, he looks like a forlorn figure in a nineties hyperrealist painting. Instead of paintings meant to look like photographs, the Coens give us photographs that look like paintings, and there’s a touch of the uncanny in the hard-edged look, as if Hashem had isolated and withered Larry with his gaze.

This displays D.D.’s possession of formidable powers of description and art-historical chops. If only D.D. could have applied the same knowledge to the lack of Larry’s sexual conquest that annoys D.D. so.

Graph 5: “Dozens of popular comics in the past half century have worked in the same satiric vein.” –D.D.
I suppose this is a valid criticism if this fact prevented D.D. from laughing. It didn’t stop me (mostly), but I’m not immune to laughing at a joke I’ve already heard if it’s related to me with a new person’s cadence. If D.D. truly believes this statement then perhaps he doesn’t laugh much.

Graph 6: Judging from ‘“A Serious Man”,’ one can only say, without blasphemy, that the cinematic Hashem is a malevolent son of a bitch.” –D.D.
No, no, no. There are possibilities spawned in the films last moments, but I refuse to do like D.D. and play the spoiler game. Which bring me to…

Gopnik’s wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a sanctimonious bastard (Fred Melamed) who covers his aggressions against Larry with limp-pawed caresses and offers of ‘understanding.’ Larry’s kids are thieving brats, and his hapless, sick, whining brother (Richard Kind) camps on the living-room couch and refuses to look for work. There’s more, much more, a series of mishaps, sordid betrayals, and weird coincidences, but Larry, a sweet guy and ‘a serious man’—upright, a good teacher, a father—won’t hit back. 

D.D. is insinuating that Larry is the titular character when he is not. It is the sanctimonious bastard. If you don’t want to take my word for it, take that of my film reviewing hero A.O. Scott over at the New York Times. And read why he is so darn awesome here.  
Characterization: e.g. D.D. was too bold in his claims about the Coen bros without good backup. He also messed up in describing the woman next door and the titular character.

Author Empathy: e.g. D.D. thought we would agree that his lead pointed out the cleverest part of the film and we (I, at least) do not.

Didacticism: e.g. Excepting the BEST MOMENT I quoted where we can learn what makes good film, D.D. mostly only teaches about what happens in movie that we don’t want to know about yet.

Catharsis: e.g. D.D. tells us not to laugh yet drops punchlines in the article that don’t demonstrate any excellent grasp of funniness.

Sophistication: e.g. D.D.’s final paragraph would be a fine feat of writing if I could agree with almost anything in it.

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