A very Jewish comedy about academia, familial bickering, and life as a cosmic joke, Joseph Cedar's Footnote is a sour, rather unpleasant affair that hinges on acts of Jews behaving badly—even when they try to do right. Cedar's premises (a contentiously paired father/son duo of Talmud scholars, the mistaken awarding of a prestigious academic prize) is one of the more intriguing in years, and the writer-director has fun geeking out on the finer points of Jewish scholarship, but at heart this is a family drama in which a resentful, barely there scholar denigrates the work of his son and disgraces him publicly, while the latter undoes an act of benevolence with a single, stinging admission. In short, everyone's nasty and the film's leavening doses of humor either backfire or only add further to the tone of miserablism.
A bitter man still smarting from decades-old academic slights, Jerusalem-based Talmud scholar Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) is perpetually ill at ease in the modern world, isolating himself both from his surroundings and his family with a pair of bright-yellow noise-cancelling headphones. His son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), is, by contrast, quite at home in the world of academia, earning membership to an illustrious scholarly academy in the film's opening scene, an honor conspicuously denied his old man. Another tribute Eliezer has long sought in vain is the prestigious Israel Prize, and when it's finally announced that he's to be this year's recipient, he takes evident, if muted, satisfaction in the belated recognition.
Too bad that, due to what seems some kind of cruel joke on the part of an Old Testament deity, there proves to be a mix-up in the announcement: The prize was supposed to go to Uriel. The younger Professor Shkolnik meets with the committee and gets them to agree to award the prize to his father anyway, but when in an accompanying interview with a magazine reporter Eliezer takes shots at his son's "unscientific" approach to scholarship, filial relations reach a contentious head.
Cedar calls on both a marked visual flair and an absurdist sense of humor to both alleviate the bitterness of the story and to add interest to a film that basically comes down to scholarly disputation. Whether signaling Eliezer's alienation by isolating the professor in the corner foreground of the screen while his son receives his induction into the academy or calling on a range of aesthetic devices to make strange the older man's bewilderment at the preparations for receiving the Israel Prize, Cedar successfully uses visual and nonverbal aural means to give the sense of a man out of place in time. Similarly, he shows off his cutting-room savvy during a tour-de-force montage sequence, mixing clips of memory and shots of archival research, as Eliezer uncovers his son's benevolent deception.
But too often Cedar's strategies feel more like cute devices designed to counteract the dourness of the proceedings, as in a series of flashy, Wes Anderson-style interludes, in which he makes flippant use of on-screen titles and a slideshow-like aesthetic to bombard us with background information on the characters. His more absurdist efforts at humor, as when Uriel visits the impossibly cramped Israel Prize committee room from which Cedar attempts to milk endless laughs, similarly become more tiresome than comic.
An audacious concept, an intermittently bold visual style, and a sense of the cosmic absurd would seem to be a recipe for a refreshingly offbeat comedy. And yet, Cedar's conception of family dynamics, his sketching of the elder scholar as an unpalatable cipher, and the general sense of nastiness that forms the film's essential tone make this just one more sour family drama wrapped up in scholarly flash—such as it is. Elizer's career may come down to little more than a footnote in the historiography of Talmudic studies; despite its surprising best screenplay win at Cannes, it's unlikely that Joseph Cedar's film is destined for any more distinguished fate in the annals of the cinema.