Friday, October 2, 2009

A Serious Man (09 Coens B+)

Republished at Gone Cinema Poaching.

Set in the mid 60's in a closely-knit, Jewish community in Minnesota, A Serious Man, the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen is being called their most nakedly personal film ("...their smart-alecky nihilism feels authentic rather than arch — you understand, maybe for the first time, where they are coming from" deduces A.O. Scott of the New York Times), a scenario bolstered by the filmmakers claim that the movie was inspired by their own experiences growing up in the Midwest. I'm not sure I'm buying it though. Like the "inspired by true events" title card placed in front of their last Minnesota-set film, the comparatively propulsive Fargo, I wouldn't put it past the puckish directors to be pulling another one over on us.

Here we have a film about the search for larger meaning, or more directly, straight-up answers in the face of the unexplainable. Why are we beset with miseries? Why is life so hard? Are there larger implications to the signs and symbols we see every day?

Yet for all the probing, the film resolutely withholds answers or flat out mocks the idea that anyone, even the most learned or devout, actually is within flailing distance of them. It's as though the Coens know we'll never stop looking for meaning or clues to unlock their own occasionally impenetrable work, with A Serious Man serving as a good natured raspberry to those foolish enough to lead the charge and do anything but "embrace the mystery."

Or is it misery? The actual quote is delivered by a disgruntled Korean student in clipped English to beleaguered physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) after half-heartedly denying his role in a bribe for grades scheme. Larry isn't sure he comprehends the expression and neither did I, but if it is indeed an auditory mistake, it's an understandable one. Over the course of a few weeks leading up to his son's Bar Mitzvah, we find Larry standing in for Job, as misfortune is rained down upon him.

A decent man (which could have served as an alternate title to the film) besieged by temptation in the form of the aforementioned bribe and the lonely housewife next door who sunbathes in the nude (photographed in a long, unblinking shot that somehow saps the image of all eroticism), Larry stays the path, searching out celestial answers to all that ails him. And does he have troubles: His wife is leaving him for the touchy-feely Sy Ableman (the unctuous Fred Melamend in a performance that would be legendary were he given but a bit more screen time) forcing him to stay at the oft-repeated Jolly Roger motel and someone has been trying to put the hex on his tenure application by sending anonymous, character-disparaging letters to the administration. His repulsive brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is an emotional and financial drain (it can't be a coincidence the character spends the entire film literally sucking pus from a cyst on the back of his neck) and his kids have little use for him beyond pilfering money from his wallet or nagging him to fix the TV antenna.

It's a life of a thousand, small indignities and Larry's desperate to find out why must they all happen to him. But getting a straight answer isn't in the cards as he jumps from rabbi to rabbi in search of guidance that's either useless, oblique or dangled just out of reach.

The film more or less follows suit: placing you in the same, always questioning, unable to locate your bearing, position as Larry. A Serious Man feels like a continuation of the famously divisive, final scene of No Country for Old Men, where we're left dangling in the wind as to what it all means. If No Country prided itself on concluding with an anti-climax, here's a film which scene by scene, nay beat by beat, is about deflating expectations often after much flurry and fluster.

In the film's best sequence, we see an extended anecdote about a Jewish dentist who discovers a message in Hebrew on the back of a patient's teeth and the great lengths he goes to to uncover their meaning. Employing every trick and knack in their playbook, the Coens breathlessly assemble the sequence like a comedian delivering a well-polished routine, stretching out its resolution to a near exasperating breaking point. To reveal any more would defeat the purpose of the scene but in a nutshell it serves to not only extrapolate the themes of the film but to serve as a reminder that often when it comes to faith, we really are in it for ourselves.

After I saw the film I knew I liked it but had a hard time pinpointing why and how much. I had trouble shaking my disorientation, as though my head were swimming and I was walking on an icy sidewalk. In the moment, A Serious Man often feels disconnected, like a bunch of assembled pieces operating separate from everything else around them. Characters and plot points are abruptly pushed off screen to make room for new ones which are no more likely to get their propers. It really does at times feel like one thing after another.

Yet appropriately, after some quiet reflection, the films intentions feel more clear to me. The experience not necessarily understood but certainly appreciated. A Serious Man handles largish ideas such as a divine plan, guilt and the idea of the Jews as, if not God's chosen people, than certainly one of his favorite targets ("just because the boss is wrong doesn't mean he's not the boss") and places them within a mundane, suburban context. The characters aren't motivated by greed or delusions of grandeur (which often go hand-in-hand in Coen brothers films). These events are merely brought upon them simply by existing (in a motif which skirts the line of being a Gump-ism, the film uses the Columbia Record Club as a metaphor for life: you do nothing and it keeps coming every month).

The film is both incredibly off-putting and enveloping. It keeps you at arm's length with its reliance on ellipses in lieu of actual resolution, yet ultimately it feels empathetic to the fact that we are all searching. And while A Serious Man might argue we're never going to find what we're looking for, at least it concedes we're all on the same road.


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