Joseph Cedar’s Footnote screens for the second and final time this evening at the 49th New York Film Festival. The film will be released theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics.
The plot of Joseph Cedar’s Footnote is its most ingenious contraption, which is to say that it should be regarded somewhat separately from the whole. A father and a son, both specialists in Talmudic analysis—though neither would agree with that statement—find themselves in a nasty state of competition. As the father is “Dr. Shkolnik” and the lady on the other end of the phone has no idea there are two of them, she mistakenly awards him his son’s Israel Prize—an honor for which the senior scholar has been snubbed for two decades. When the son, Uriel, is called in to help straighten out the matter, he protests on the grounds that his father has long deserved the award, and ultimately persists. Problem is, his fathe— or, as Uriel’s wife calls him, his “autistic father”—has a serious beef with Uriel’s careerism, his field of study, and apparently his whole generation’s scholarship.
Still with me? The spiteful elder Shkolnik, who puts on noise-canceling headphones when he gets home from work and sleeps in his study, sets about turning his newfound prestige into a crusade against Uriel and company. His scorn will resonate with anyone who gets exasperated trying to explain their expertise to an already glazed-over populace. The son is an ostentatious uber-academic, a nice guy who wants everyone to like him, and so his predicament of securing the Prize for the old man and bearing the subsequent blows is especially harrowing. While the story is played for laughs, it ultimately builds to a confrontation that is theoretically serious; audiences will respond much more positively to Uriel, for all his faults, than to his caricatured, unknowable monolith of a father.
There is a strong humanism to Cedar’s comedic setups, but he doesn’t have the chops to make a visually challenging movie. Footnote is designed as a maximalist audience-pleaser, replete with Carl Stalling-esque musical cues, “quirky” motion graphics, master shots ripped from Ikea commercials and a godlike voiceover that discloses characters’ foibles behind their backs. Although the script betrays no real interest in the nitty-gritty of the Talmud, the subject is supposed to be esoterica; maybe, then, these flourishes are a means of sweetening the deal for skeptical viewers. But if so, it’s a bad call. Much of the music is used indiscriminately, to tie weak ends together or to mine drama out of ordinary camerawork—at worst, to extend shots and fill time. It’s the kind of movie where a character sits at a computer, types at half the realistic speed, and verbally narrates their corrections/edits to the audience while the camera follows the cursor zipping around the screen.