Friday, October 23, 2009

A Serious Man (***1/2)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen


If we are to believe that the Coen Brothers are the seminal filmmakers of their generation, it is mostly because of a style that they pioneered. A style that has stayed consistent throughout their careers and really defined them as true autuers. I feel that even the most zealous followers of the Coens may not know what to make of A Serious Man. Their careers are some consisting of almost twenty films that are the very definition of eccentricity. Yet, I feel that with this film they may have crafted their most mystifying, and most philosophical project to date. They are breaking the mold here, and trying something different.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having a lot of trouble in his life. He is a physics professor who is on the verge of being tenured, but their seems to be a few things still standing in his way. A clueless student of his tries to bribe him into giving a passing grade, and though Larry refuses, the tenure board begins to receive anonymous letters disparaging him. At home, Larry's family is becoming unglued. His troubled brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch and won't leave. This burdens his entire family, particularly his harpy wife Judith (Sari Lennick).

One night, Judith tells Larry that she wants a divorce, and that she has been having an affair with his fellow colleague at the university, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Judith is cold in her delivery, advising him to find a lawyer and move into a motel as soon as possible. Larry has a son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), who is weeks away from celebrating his Bar Mitzvah, but prefers smoking marijuana and listening to Jefferson Airplane on his transistor radio. His daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), only cares about washing her hair, but this task is made difficult when Uncle Arthur will never leave the bathroom.

Larry doesn't know why all this trouble seems to be simultaneously raining down upon him, and he seeks desperately for the answers. He visits several rabbis of various ages and one tries to compare life to a parking lot, while another tells him a meaningless anecdote about a dentist who saw Hebrew letters in a man's teeth. The most respected rabbi in his neighborhood refuses to even speak with him because he's too busy "thinking". He is becoming overwhelmed, and the only thing he has going for him is watching his neighbor Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) sun bathe in the nude.

Beginning with No Country For Old Men and especially after Burn After Reading, many of the Coens' biggest fans began to wonder why their films were beginning to drift into incoherency (at least plot-wise). Yet, everyone was still behind them, putting their trust into their filmmaking abilities. A Serious Man will probably test Coen fans more than anything else they've ever done. It is something different then there usual work, something more personal. For the first time, they seem to be looking into a bit of their history, i.e. 1960's Midwest Jewish suburbia. And for the record, they are not looking back with a very kind eye.

Perhaps it is simply that the film is under-viewed (there are no stars in the cast, and I don't think there could be any above modest expectations at the box office), but I'm surprised that more Jewish representatives have not stood up in protest against this film. The religion is seen as shallow and nothing more than a romantic ideal. Of course, I feel the Coens are actually going after religion in general, and Judaism just happens to be what the subjects follow in this film. The character of Larry is searching the depths of his humanity to discover what in his life has prompted Hashem (God) to punish him so, and he can't find an answer.

Despite a rather large cast, the film is mostly a showcase for actor Michael Stuhlbarg. A Julliard-trained, Tony Award-nominated actor, Larry Gopnik is his first starring role in a feature film, and he will be an actor to watch. Stuhlbarg plays Larry with fantastic nuance, and is probably the single reason why A Serious Man does not come off the tracks. In the small role as Larry's conniving but slothful brother Arthur, comedic character actor Richard Kind gives the film some terrific strangeness and Fred Melamed's performance as the surprisingly softhearted "other man" has some of the best comic moments.

A Serious Man never lets up, and it never feels that Larry has had enough. In a lesser filmmaker's hands, the film could have become terribly disjointed (and to be completely honest, it still kind of is). That said, the film contains several flashes of brilliance common in a Coen Brothers movie. There's quirk and laughs, juxtaposed by the darker elements of paranoia and grief. On a single viewing, it's very hard to tell what A Serious Man is truly about, and many would say that the Coens don't even care. I would say that they care very much, and they expect you to work very hard to figure it out. It's hard to fault anyone who doesn't want that responsibility.

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