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A SERIOUS MAN
(****)

Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR:" Rutkowski
Written & Directed by:
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring:
Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed
Running time:
105 minutes
Released:
10/02/09
Rated R for language, drug use, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.
“A Serious Man” is one of their (Cohen's) very best films to date and reconfirms that they are among the most daring and audacious filmmakers working today”
If there is one thing about the career arc of Joel & Ethan Coen, it's that they certainly respond to success and acclaim in decidedly offbeat ways. When their 1985 debut “Blood Simple” put them on the map as neo-noir stylists of the highest order, they followed it up a couple of years later with the broad slapstick silliness of “Raising Arizona.” When the small, dark and highly metaphorical art film “Barton Fink” scored the Palme D’or at Cannes in 1991, securing their positions as artists of the highest rank, they would return with the fairly expensive and cheerfully silly fable “The Hudsucker Proxy,” When their 1996 effort “Fargo” became one of the most unexpected award-winning hits of the decade, they responded with “The Big Lebowski,” a movie which has since become a huge cult hit but which was largely written off at the time by many people as nothing more than a weird bit of hazy-headed fluff. Therefore, when 2007’s “No Country for Old Men,” their uncharacteristically straightforward adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, became their biggest box-office hit and swept the Oscars to boot, their fans probably assumed that they would once again respond to that unexpected success with something decidedly offbeat and wholly unexpected (last year’s “Burn After Reading” doesn’t count because it was already in the works before the “No Country” juggernaut began). Even so, it is unlikely that any of them pictured the brothers coming up with something along the lines of “A Serious Man,” a brilliant and bracingly original work that is funny and thought provoking in equal measure and which is one of the finest and most fascinating works of their entire careers.

Set in 1967 in a Minnesota suburb in which the cultural changes of the era have yet to arrive, save for the exception of the sounds of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” emerging from the occasional teen-wielded transistor radio, “A Serious Man” gives us a glimpse at a couple of weeks in the life of Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish academic who teaches physics at a local college and whose life, as the story opens, is about to take a series of grim and unexpected turns both personally and professionally. At home, his brilliant-but-lazy brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch without any evident intention of finding a job and moving out, his son, Danny (Aaron Wolff) is supposed to be studying for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah but would rather get stoned and listen to rock music, his older daughter (Jessica McManus) is complaining that she wants a nose job and his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick) pole axes him one morning with the unexpected news that she wants a divorce, that she has begun a friendship with the gruesomely unctuous widower Sy Abeleman (Fred Melamed) and that it would be better off for everyone if Larry left the house and moved into a nearby motel. At work, things aren’t much better. He isn’t a particularly inspiring teacher--he even admits that he doesn’t completely understand some of the principles that he teaches, though that doesn’t stop him from insisting that his students know them for their exams--and that realization begins to weigh heavier upon him now that he is up for tenure. A Korean student insists that Larry change his failing grade because it is “unjust” and even goes so far as to offer him a bribe to make it happen and when Larry refuses it, the kid’s father threatens to sue him on grounds that are never quite made clear. To top things off, the tenure committee has been receiving a series of letters denigrating Larry and while the head keeps blandly assuring Larry that the letters will not influence the decision in any way, the mere fact that he repeatedly mentions that fact is proof positive that they will.

This is not merely a bad patch that Larry is experiencing--this is a string of bad luck to rival the trials of Job--and for someone whose entire life is based upon the notion that actions have consequences, he is dumbfounded as to why all of this is befalling him. After all, he is a good and decent man who has tried to live a life of strong moral and ethical standards--steadfastly refusing temptations ranging from that aforementioned bribe to those offered by a beautiful next-door neighbor (Amy Landecker) who enjoys sunbathing in her yard in the nude, smoking pot and otherwise taking advantage of what she refers to as “the new freedoms”--and is always eager to do the right thing, even if (as in the case of his increasingly annoying brother) doing so only causes him more anguish, even in his dreams. What he doesn’t understand is why God would make someone who follows all the rules of decency suffer so much--even to the point of being hounded at work by a collector from a record club that he knows nothing about--while others seem to get away with anything they want. Needing answers, Larry seeks out advice for his spiritual and secular problems from a variety of rabbis, lawyers, colleagues and other allegedly learned people but in every case, all he gets in return is either long-winded parables that have nothing to do with his situation or revelations that will either get him into more trouble, cost him more money or dangle a brief bit of hope before cruelly snatching it away from him. Perhaps if Larry had heard the Hebrew proverb that opens the film, “Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you,” those words might have been the thing to give him solace in his time of need. Unfortunately for Larry, they are immediately followed by a bizarre prologue set long ago in a Polish shtetl in which a couple is visited by an old man that they know who may or may not have died and transformed into a malicous spirit--by the time the focus finally shifts to him, the proverb has been long forgotten.

Because the Coen Brothers grew up in a neighborhood not unlike the one seen here at the same time that it is set and because they were from an academic family, there has been much speculation that “A Serious Man” is a far more autobiographical work than their previous efforts--at the very least, it has the look and feel of the kind of small-scale and highly symbolic personal project that a filmmaker is generally expected after coming up with a commercial and critical hit along the lines of what they achieved a couple of years ago with “No Country for Old Men”. (Their actual follow-up to that triumph was last year’s “Burn After Reading,” though it was already in production before the “No Country” juggernaut began.) While the sequence involving young Danny trying to make it through his Bar Mitzvah while stoned has a verisimilitude to it that suggests that it wasn’t invented entirely out of whole cloth, it seems absurd to think, after building an entire career on films, save for “No Country for Old Men,” that are arch and irony-drenched commentaries on various film genres (even the beloved “Fargo” was a bit of a put-on of the true-crime docudrama genre) that they would suddenly open up and let viewers into their lives by celluloid proxy. (Besides, if that were true, it would stand to reason that Danny would be the central character in that case instead of his dad.)

Instead, it feels like it is an arch and irony-drenched commentary on the kind of small-scale and highly symbolic personal project that filmmakers are expected to make after a massive commercial and critical hit. If there is an autobiographical aspect to “A Serious Man,” I would say that comes in the way that the film serves as a way for the Coen's to respond to their critics who complain that their films are cynical constructions in which they jerk their characters around from one bizarre situation to another with the detachment of cruel and dispassionate gods who let their creations suffer for no particular reason and with no satisfactory explanations for either the characters or the audience members observing their plights. Read in this light, the film stands as a fascinating meditation on the responsibility that artists have towards their creations and their audiences--by not explaining things in detail and wrapping everything up in the end, are they encouraging viewers to engage with the story that they are telling or are they just being smirky jerks? I won’t tell you the answer but I will say that the denouement is especially brilliant in the way that it seemingly wraps things up while still coming across in such a fascinatingly oblique manner that it makes the controversial end of “No Country for Old Men” seem like a studio-demanded reshoot by comparison.

Even if you don’t necessarily subscribe to this particular interpretation of “A Serious Man” (and even though I am the one proposing it, I am not entirely convinced myself that it is completely accurate), there are plenty of other reason to admire it. Although it may not contain the most straightforward of narratives, the screenplay has the charm of a rambling shaggy dog story containing plenty of oddball divergences that don’t really add much to the story proper but which are nevertheless absolutely essential to its feel--I especially love the sequence in which one of the rabbis (George Wyner) recounts the parable of “The Goy’s Teeth.” The direction is pitch-perfect in the way that it transforms material that could have been painful to behold in the hands of others into the kind of hilariously discomforting and mordant comedy that is rarely seen these days. All of the performances from the relatively unknown cast (this is not the kind of film that would benefit from the presence of people like George Clooney and Brad Pitt) are spot-on as well in the way that they perfectly capture the deadpan attitude that the Coen's are truly striving for--as Larry, stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg turns in one of the best pieces of acting that you will see this year and Fred Melamed is absolutely hysterical as the man who cuckolds Larry and then insists on making it up to him with a bottle of wine that he then uses as a ham-fisted metaphor for justifying his behavior. Amazingly, there are even a few moments that cut through the dark humor and hit upon simple emotional truths in an affecting manner without making a big deal out of it--after spending most of the film offering the rabbi characters as people who are out-of-touch with those they are supposed to be helping, the chief rabbi gets a moment with Danny in one of the closing scenes in which he finally and unexpectedly offers advice that is direct, to the point and helpful to boot.

As an enormous fan of the Coen Brothers, I feel that “A Serious Man” is one of their very best films to date and reconfirms that they are among the most daring and audacious filmmakers working today. However, I am also a realist and I am willing to concede that, due to the lack of stars and the outré subject matter, the film will probably not catch on with a mass audience to any degree. However, if you just sit back and accept everything that happens with simplicity, there is a very good chance that you will respond to it as strongly as I have. Even if you don’t, there is no way that you are going to walk away from it complaining that you have seen it all before--this is an original through and through and while I may not fully understand what drove the Coen's to make it, I am very grateful that they did. This is on the short list of the best of 2009.

A SERIOUS MAN © Focus Features
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2009 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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