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Toronto Film Festival

Weighty subjects for trio

September 14, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

TORONTO — For Jason Reitman and the Coen brothers, the Toronto International Film Festival is like coming home -- all found their footing here when their first movies were embraced by this audience, as well as the pictures that have come since. This year, they're examining men in suits and their troubled souls: Reitman in "Up in the Air" and Joel and Ethan Coen with "A Serious Man."

George Clooney in Reitman's movie and Michael Stuhlbarg in the Coen brothers' film play characters cut from the same cloth: men who set courses for their lives who are now forced to dig deeper just when they thought they had things figured out. These are locked-down lives where suits and ties are really not optional and answers don't come easily, though, if truth be told, they'd much rather the questions had never been raised.

In "Up in the Air," which Reitman says he began writing six years ago (long before he had any idea it would seem so relevant), Clooney plays something of a grim reaper of corporate downsizing, the man hired by companies to come in and fire their employees and ease them across the River Styx to unemployment and an uncertain future on the other side.

It's hard to imagine anyone else in the role than Clooney -- that man has an uncanny ability to deliver bad news and leave us feeling grateful for it.

God and faith

In "A Serious Man," Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) is a good man who finds himself struggling to understand why his life is suddenly imploding around him.

As bit by bit, one piece after another of his life falls away, Larry searches for understanding, essentially asking, "What is God telling me? What does it mean?" of the three wise men (his rabbis), one lawyer and a very troublesome relative in Richard Kind, none of whom helps him a great deal.

The film is fundamentally an examination of God, faith and religion, weighty subjects pushed through the Coens' sieve, which means laced with irony and satire.

Exactly how the filmmakers manage to offer up extreme absurdity in such a remarkably understated way (think "Fargo") is just another mystery that, like Larry, they're content to leave us to figure out on our own.

Two very different films, two very different leading men, yet two sides of the same story. Both examine a coming of middle age for their protagonists; both are likely to fuel much cinematic conversation this fall.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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