Think the world of corporate competition can get nasty? Try academic infighting. For some reason, the smaller the stakes are, the nastier the conflict becomes. Add in an unhealthy dose of father-son rivalry and you’ve got the makings of a particularly toxic brew. Or so goes the premise of 2011 Oscar-nominated Footnote, from writer-director Joseph Cedar (Beaufort).
Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) are Talmudic professors at Hebrew University. Eliezer is the dour, snobbish traditionalist, a scholar who has spent his life doggedly (and ploddingly) verifying every nuance of his research. In contrast, Uriel is more of a big-picture guy, a perky populist who is unconcerned with finicky details. Needless to say, the son’s work has been embraced while Dad has toiled in bitter obscurity. This has strained their relationship, creating friction both at work and in the home their families share. Until, that is, Eliezer receives a letter informing him that he has been awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for his life’s work. Finally feeling validated, Eliezer’s mood brightens considerably. Unfortunately, so does his vanity, leading him to publicly condemn his son’s work as superficial. But there’s a wrinkle — the prize notification letter was intended for Uriel not Eliezer.
Don’t be put off by the Judaic trappings of Footnote; the majority of Cedar’s film is a sharp, relationship-driven (albeit deadpan) comedy that cheerfully eviscerates academia while examining the friction that comes from family grudges and legacy. In many ways, the Talmud (the Hebrew bible) is a prop, the kind of narrow field of study that seems to pressurize professional competition and contempt. It’s here that the movie works best — sending up pompous bureaucrats, petty university politics and personal jealousies.
The talented cast struggles and strains to make unlikable characters interesting, if not sympathetic. Ashkenazi is effectively frustrated and befuddled as the gladhanding and lazy yet honest Uriel. Bar-Aba has the harder row to hoe, injecting just brief moments of humanity into the simmering arrogance, hypocrisy and egotism of Eliezer. But even as you find your tolerance for both severely tested, Cedar is smart enough to uncover the roots of their personalities, while offering up a tart bit of social commentary. His movie also give us intriguing glimpses of modern Israeli life, providing details and accents that contextualize the world these characters live in.
Unfortunately, the heavy-handed dichotomy between father and son too often borders on sitcom, and Cedar tries too hard to sell the humor with big music cues, cute on-screen titles, and Wes Anderson-style cut scenes. There are a few successful stabs at comedy — a showdown in a cramped meeting room for one — but the overall tone of the film is too sour for its stabs at absurdist laughs.
Footnote’s latter third further undermines any chance at caustic success as it lurches from droll comedy to realistic family drama. Underlining the fact that Uriel went into the field of Talmudic studies to get closer to his imperious dad only to drive a bigger wedge between them, Cedar milks the father-son mush for as much reconciliation as he can get while mounting a heartfelt defense for scholarly learning. It’s a surprisingly sentimental choice that guarantees this flawed yet ambitious comedy will, like its unsung academic subjects, become just another historical footnote in the history of Oscar-nominated cinema.
Opens Friday, April 13, at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.