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Reitman and the Coens and Men in suits

September 13, 2009 |  9:23 am

For filmmakers Jason Reitman and the Coen brothers, the Toronto Film Festival is like coming home -- both found their footing here when their first films were embraced by this audience, as well as the ones that have come after. This year they're back with the filmmakers each 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 are cut from the same cloth. Men who have set a course with their lives 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 the 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 is 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 unexpected, 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.

As captivating as Clooney can be, and he is here, it is the parade of faces and the stories that the newly fired tell us that may well leave us, as they did another of the film's stars, Jason Bateman in the audience for the film's premiere here, with a face streaked by tears.

In "A Serious Man,"  Larry Gopnick (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 falls away, Larry begins a search 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 help 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. Just how the fimmakers 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 examining a coming of middle-age for their prototagonists; both likely to fuel much cinematic conversation this fall. 

--Film critic Betsy Sharkey