Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Review: A Serious Man

A Serious Man (***1/2/****)

One moment, early on in A Serious Man, clued me into the kind of film I'd be watching. The film opens with a bizarre comic-violent prologue in Yiddish, and then skips, without warning, to a Minneapolis Hebrew School in the 70s while blaring Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love." At this point, A Serious Man allowed its true form to be seen: The Coen brothers do love strange juxtapositions, and the film itself would turn out to be just that; a strange juxtaposition. Is it odd? Definitely. Is it funny? In a sort of cringe-inducing way, yes. Is it incomprehensible? Not quite, but it does its damnedest. Does it work? Mostly.

A Serious Man chronicles a period in the life of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish Physics professor struggling to make tenure. His home life begins to disintegrate: his wife asks for a divorce, she's having an affair with his friend, his children seem to be concealing things from him, and his deadbeat brother refuses to do anything but drain the cyst in his neck at odd hours of the day. At work, a student attempts to bribe him, and, when that fails, sue him for defamation. As his life falls apart, Larry searches for answers: first in himself, then from his loved ones, and finally, from his Rabbis. No one seems to know what the hell is going on, or any way to fix it.

With A Serious Man, the Coens have created a film that seems like an in-joke, but manifests itself as something more. Their film is a meditation on why bad things happen to good people. I found the film to be a biblical interpretation of sorts: The book of Job (in which God allows Satan to pimp-slap a righteous man to the ground in order to win a bet), liberally laced with the elements of the story of David and Bathsheba (which I won't expand upon, for spoiler-avoiding reasons, but if you know the story, you can guess the sort of things that happen). All of this is, of course, conjecture. Any attempt to fit some definite moral or theme to this film is like coming up with plots for the dreams you have: they don't exist while you're having them, but upon waking, you need continuity to make sense of the experience you just had.

The acting is solid across the board. Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, in particular, is quite effective. He manages to not sound whiny or annoying, which is quite the feat, considering his character's situation. Sari Lennick and Fred Melamed, as Gopnik's wife and her lover, respectively, also do wonders with their (relatively) small parts. Also worth noting is Richard Deakin's starkly beautiful cinematography: it's not showy, but creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, as if the world is slowly caving in on poor Mr. Gopnik.

There is one moment in the film that most people will see as being completely superfluous, or incomprehensible, or both. The scene in question concerns Rabbi Nachtner's story about the dentist finding inscriptions in his patient's teeth. I humbly submit this as scene as the thesis statement of the entire film: Nachtner's last (paraphrased) words? "Who knows why these things happen, but being good? It doesn't hurt."

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