Saturday, February 12, 2011

Review: A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)

Everything I thought was one way, turns out to be the other. I feel like the carpet has been yanked out from under me - Larry Gopnik.

One of the Coens more personal and bizarre experiments, A Serious Man, is a thought-provoking black comedy that centers on a Jewish man living in 1960's Minnesota suburbia, who's personal and professional life begins to crumble around him through inexplicable circumstances outside of his control. Well received, it was awarded a Best Picture Nomination at the 82nd Academy Awards.
The central protagonist is Lawrence Gopnik (an outstanding performance form Michael Stuhlbarg), a respected professor of physics. Through a unmotivated series of bad luck, Larry's life spirals out of control. His wife, who recognizes that their marriage is riddled with problems, requests a Get (a Jewish divorce) so she can marry friend and widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). The two suggest that Larry find alternate residency at local motel, The Jolly Rancher, and seek legal advice on the matter. Also living at the Gopnik home, and contributing to Larry's breakdown, are his son Danny, his daughter Sarah and brother Arthur. Danny obsessively nags his father to fix the aerial so his favorite channel is in tune, and owes a bully at school twenty dollars for the purchase of marijuana, which becomes further complicated when his walkman containing the money is confiscated. Larry's social-outcast brother Arthur (Richard Kind) sleeps on the couch, frequently occupies the bathroom to drain his cyst (much the anger of Larry's daughter Sarah who spends the entire film washing her hair), and spends most of his free time filling his notebook with a 'Mentaculous Theory', a probability map of the universe. We find out that this cannot even be hypothesized.

At work Larry is facing the pending vote on his application for tenure, an honor placed in jeopardy by a series of anonymous notes urging the board to vote against him. To further make matters worse, he is threatened by the father of one of his South Korean students for defamation, after the boy leaves a large wad of cash in Larry's office as a bribe to alter his failed mark. As Larry's life mysteriously and inexplicably spirals out of control he looks to his faith for the answers. He approaches two different Rabbi's for an explanation, but finds them obscure and seemingly oblivious to his troubles, and leaves feeling more confused than ever. They offer little assistance beyond the strange tale or two and seem to provide answers for everything except the one Larry is looking for. The lyrics of 'Somebody to Love' by Jefferson Airplane reiterate this idea:

"When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joys within you dies."

When Larry fails to find the answers to his questions within faith, he all but loses hope. Perhaps the Coen Brothers are making a statement about religion in A Serious Man by considering its existence as a way for everyone to feel like they love someone. Larry declares throughout the film that he 'hadn't done anything' (including his questioning of his wife's reasoning to leave him, and in response to his knowledge of an accumulated debt from a Record Club), and wonders why his life appears to be absent of Hashem's love. Perhaps, his inability to love anyone (never do we see an extension of his love towards his wife, or his children) is the ultimate cause of his downfall, and he has been searching for answers in the wrong place.

As his problems mount, Larry continues to lose grip on his life, and is met with even more external troubles. 'The Uncertainty Principle', the subject of one of Larry's lectures, is of prime importance to understanding the film. I have watched it twice now, and I still don't fully understand it. Many of the Jewish religious references were lost on me. The audience, like Larry, have no sense of what is going to happen next, which stretches all the way until the concluding shot. This makes the film difficult to interpret on a single viewing alone. Larry begins to question his own wisdom, failing to calculate (following the extraordinary series of events) where his life will turn next. He tells his class: "The Uncertainty Principle proves we can't ever really know what's going on. So it shouldn't bother you, not being able to figure everything out. Although you will be responsible for this on your mid-term." The Coens situate their protagonist against an immovable force, but unlike the protagonist in a film like No Country for Old Men, it is an invisible one. Is it by the grace of god that Larry finds his life turned upside down or merely the powers of fate and coincidence?

We feel sure that Larry's luck will turn around at the conclusion of the film as we see all of Larry's problems just wash away. Sy Ableman unexpectedly dies from a car accident, his wife returns to him, his son Danny successfully passes his Bar Mitzvah, and Larry is honored with tenure. He also decides to alter the failing grade of his South Korean student, who's mysterious blackmail attempt placed Larry in a predicament, to a C-minus. Immediately, however, Larry receives a telephone call from his doctor regarding his chest X-Ray results. The serious tone of his voice indicates the news is not positive. It seems Larry's problems have only just begun. But in the end what does it matter? The fast approaching tornado may just wipe out the entire town. The film concludes with a sharp cut to black as Danny and his classmates are awaiting their teacher to open the school's shelter door, and as they watch as the tornado quickly bear down on them.

This is one of the Coen Bros' more bizarre films, but can also be credited as one of their most ingeniously constructed. Every feature of the film is intricately connected to one another. I remember being quite annoyed by the very limited release the film received in Australian cinemas, but when I saw it I understood. With such a strange story, it's a difficult film to interpret and enjoy. I found the spiral of tragic events to be frequently hilarious, and the scripting as sharp as any of the their other work. The opening folk tale prologue confused me too, but I interpreted the couple to perhaps be distant relatives of Larry, whose actions towards their visitor provoke a curse on their family tree. Larry's meetings with the Rabbis are great, especially Nachner's story about the dentist. Michael Stuhlbarg gives an outstanding performance. He didn't receive enough credit for his work here. As usual the involvement of Roger Deakins' cinematography and Carter Burwell's score can't be ignored. A Serious Man is yet another classic from the Coen Brothers, who took a step back with their 2008 film, Burn After Reading but are back in fine form here. One of the best films of the year.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

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