Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Darkly layered "A Serious Man" Coens' most personal work

A Serious Man (2009) 
105 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

The piquant quality about any Coen Brothers film is that each of them are strikingly different, whether it be their last wacky trifle "Burn After Reading," or their masterpieces, the brutally funny "Fargo" and brutally tense "No Country for Old Men." Their fourteenth film, "A Serious Man," is Joel and Ethan's most personal and Jewish work, and it's much a labor of love rather than an exercise, an anomaly from their former works but not without its own, off-kilter sensibilities. 

Set in a cookie-cutter Jewish neighborhood in 1967, Minneapolis unfolds a “schlemiel story” about Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), an ordinary man who teaches physics at a local college. His wife (Sari Lennick) breaks the news that she's leaving him for a sleazy colleague, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). He supports his homeless, bathroom-hogging genius brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), who lives on the couch and gets into some gambling trouble. His son is more interested in F-Troop on TV and, about to have his Bar Mitzvah, smokes pot in the school bathroom. His daughter is mostly busy washing her hair. The neighbors are also hostile gentiles. He's also threatened to be sued for defamation of character by a Korean student, who tries bribing Larry for a passing grade. On top of all that, anonymous letters show up at the school's tenure commission accusing Larry of moral turpitude. Pretending to be optimistic, life is none too good for Larry, who goes looking for answers. Not even three rabbis can give him an answer, and Larry reaches his breaking point. 

A fictional Yiddish folktale opens the film, indirectly related to the plot proper, with a centuries-ago Shtetl couple being visited by a man who supposedly died three years earlier and the wife certain he's a Dybbuk (an evil spirit). It sets the mood for unease. The Coens paint a portrait of the American Midwest right after their "Fargo" and it seems this is almost revenge on their upbringing. The 'Bros paint their characters and their relationships with a mocking, deadpan contempt: nose-job-obsessed meeskites and soup-slurping mishpachas. But as an existential black comedy that satirizes the Book of Job from the Hebrew Bible, it's done with a delicate, wry touch. The cast of relative unknowns is pitch-perfect casting of fresh faces, with costume design adding sharply amusing character detail. 

Stuhlbarg, in his first lead movie role, carries it all on his shoulders in an arresting performance, and it's impossible not to feel Larry's exasperation. "A Serious Man" is a darkly funny, offbeat, multilayered fable, richly detailed with period music (Jefferson Airplane's “Somebody to Love” most memorable) and production design, and much verbal and visual wit. One of the rabbi's fables, “The Goy's Teeth,” about a dentist that finds Hebrew letters in one's mouth, has no point or ending, and in a way, the film is like that too. 

Like the poor schmuck, er, schlemiel Larry Gopnik, you'll be out of luck in finding a resolution in the film's ambiguous, philosophical conclusion, except that the Coens are basically saying, in a nutshell, “Life's a bitch, then you die.” Mazel tov Joel and Ethan! 

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