Friday, October 2, 2009

A Serious Man

There are two groups of people who should go see this movie: 1. anyone who is Jewish and 2. anyone who knows someone who is Jewish. Writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen have done it again with their latest parody on American-Jewish culture in the sixties. The public has come to know their style of film making to be intricately elaborate and situationally extremist, and A Serious Man is most certainly both. Personally, I wish I had gone to see this with one of my Jewish friends, but only so that I would have had an on-hand expert to immediately clue me in on some of the scenarios depicted in the film. There were several scenes where the audience bursted out into laughter without any real premise to do so; it dawned on me that these must have been some sort of Jewish inside jokes, if you will. Despite my lack of cognition, the movie was highly entertaining and not just in a Coen Brothers sort of way. We have seen this approach from them before in such films as Raising Arizona and Fargo that embrace a known ethnology that we may not all know personally, but certainly know of. This pre-establishes a level of endearance to audiences because most can certainly relate to the idea of what these characters are going through. So even if you're not of any kind of Jewish decent, the predicaments are so intriguing that it arouses a curiosity to want to know about being Jewish. Or at the very least, want to know about these characters. This is what makes this such a great film.

Joel and Ethan Coen on set
The opening scene is a sort of flashback to another time and probably another country, where two married Jewish peasants find themselves entertaining an alleged neighbor who has just aided the husband outside. The couple debate aimlessly (entirely in Yiddish) as to whether this guest is actually their rabbi neighbor or a demon in disguise. Because there is a severe snow storm, it is inevitable that they invite him in. Amidst their conversation with this rabbi/demon, the wife finds the courage to confront their visitor in the most unlikely of methods and he finally leaves their home. The scene ends violently but enigmatically with the line, "Good riddance to evil." This sets an unnerving tone for the rest of the film that bad things do happen to good people.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnick
The central character is a middle-aged physics professor named Larry Gopnick, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. Larry finds himself hurled into a series of events that have little to do with his own actions and everything to do with everyone else. Stuhlbarg is relatively unknown beyond Broadway circles, so audiences do not likely have a prerequisite for his performance. This was probably a wise decision for the Coens. Stuhlbarg creates a spectacle for a character that isn't very interesting at all, but that in itself is the premise for the entire movie. On the surface, Larry has the seemingly ideal suburban life: a steady job, a home, wife and family whom he loves. But his ignorance towards understanding the depths of the people in his life, erupt into a downward spiral of events that leave him questioning his very existence and his faith. It's not so much that audience's will sympathize with Larry Gopnick, as much as they will be dumbstruck by his passivity. The Coens brilliantly intertwine various predicaments with Larry to create the perfect plight of sins of omission.

Stuhlbarg with Sari Lennick as his wife Judith
Larry's woes seemingly begin when his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) initiates a conversation about them getting a divorce. He is in a state of complete shock by this and questions why and how it has come to this between them. Although she insists that it is not because of another man, she admits to being romantically "involved" with one of their recently widowed friends Sy Ableman, played by Fred Melamed. To Judith, Sy is essentially everything that Larry is not. In reality, Sy is overbearing, presumptuous, and self-indulgent. He takes it upon himself to console Larry about him loosing his wife to him and even goes as far as trying to nurture him by hugging him, despite the obvious awkwardness Larry has around him. This is just one example of many characters in this story who force themselves upon our protagonist, altering his life as he knows it.

Stuhlbarg with Richard Kind as Uncle Arthur
On Sy's recommendation, Judith ardently implores Larry to move out of their home. Being the push over that he is, Larry concedes to them and takes residence at a local motel called "The Jolly Roger". He also takes with him his unemployable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) who had been sleeping on their couch and imposing upon their hospitality. Although directly inconsequential to Larry's predicament, he obviously cares about his brother very much and is willing to endure the burden of looking after him despite Arthur's apathy and listless behavior. Kind is on point here with his portrayal of Larry's imposing mooch of a sibling who struggles with self-assurance and self-worth. There is a climactic scene where Arthur has an emotional break down, pleading to Larry his envy of his ideal life while his own is mediocre. The irony of this is bewildering because Larry believes the exact same thing about himself, and sees his life as anything but ideal. This is the kind of play upon situations that the Coen Brothers craft so extremely well.

Lennick with Jessica McManus as Sarah
Back in the late 80's, an offended moviegoer contacted the Coen Brothers about their film Raising Arizona. Apparently the use of so many Polish jokes and cultural parodies were so vexing, this man and his mother had abruptly left the theater in the middle of the film. He beseeched them to "Next time, why don't you make a film about Jews?" And although it is over twenty years later, this film is their response to that complaint. Ethan has dubbed this their "Jew film". As with most all of their movies, the Coen Brothers have already endured much negative criticism, this time from the Jewish Community. One reaction accused them of "turning on their own people". There are scenes that incorporate some very blatant caricatures on Jewish culture: kids falling asleep out of boredom in Hebrew school, rabbis who are depicted as puerile and incompetent, and a shallow daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) who aims to have a nose job done. This is the same kind of generalized reactions that have come against Larry David citing his "offensive nature (to) his own self hatred and selfishness". David responded, "I hate myself, but it's not because I'm Jewish." Jewish viewers should not to take this film so personally. It is after all a movie; we are talking about a work of art, of fiction, not about some real-life "shandah for the goyim” like Bernie Madoff. Besides, the Coens present a disclaimer in the credits that "No Jews were hurt in the filming of this movie."

Aaron Wolff as Danny
While Joel and Ethan Coen did grow up in suburban Minnesota and their own father was a college professor, this is clearly not entirely an autobiography. The scene where Larry is bribed by a South Korean student (David Kang) who has failed his class and is at threat of losing his scholarship did actually happen to their father at the University of Minnesota. However, not quite as it is depicted in the film. He had given the money back and reported the student to the dean without any moral dilemma, unlike Larry. The Coen Brothers do implore a father-son theme throughout the story; we learn more and more about Larry's son Danny (Aaron Wolff) and how he inadvertently manages to put his father's life into perspective through his own naivete. Many have incorrectly assumed that A Serious Man is directly about their own lives simply because they are Jewish. While I believe it to be drawn from many of their own experiences (what good story isn't), it shouldn't be seen as their life story, as much as a story about life's predicaments.

Stuhlbarg with Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman
My old film professor Louis Giannetti would be proud to know that his theories on visual style and overall tone were among the first things I noticed about A Serious Man. The Coen Brothers have fostered an elaborate Mise-en-scène once again, while maintaining a pragmatic approach to their comic stylization. Much like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, they implore the use of popular period music to cleverly envoke a distinct mood in the film; here, they recurrently use the song "Somebody To Love" by Jefferson Airplane as if it is scripture--which may very well be to the Coen Brothers. And as always, their attention to detail both with the scripted dialogue and visuals on the screen are sharp and vigilant. The movie opens with a Rashi-attributed quote, "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you," which epitomizes exactly how Larry Gopnick copes with life.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Bottom Line: A must see! Especially if you can appreciate the dark farcical style of the Coen Brothers.

Jefferson Air Plane: "Don't You Want Somebody to Love"

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