Friday, October 23, 2009

A Serious Man: Seriously odd

A Serious Man  (2009) • View trailer for A Serious Man
Two stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, drug use and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.23.09
Buy DVD: A Serious Man• Buy Blu-Ray: A Serious Man [Blu-ray]

As a goy, I feel hopelessly ill-equipped to analyze this film.

A Serious Man would be served far better by a synagogue discussion group, and I've no doubt that'll happen a few times, during the next several months.
Mark this man's expression: It's how Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg)
responds to a building series of calamities, while receiving not the slightest bit
of sympathy or assistance from his nearest and dearest. Son Danny (Aaron
Wolff), for example, couldn't care less about his father's happiness; the kid only
wants dad to fix the TV, so he can watch F Troop.

Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen have uncorked a baby-boomer riff on the biblical plight of Job: an unrelenting assault on the dignity of a hopelessly overmatched schlimazel with no means of fighting back. And the story itself is as wincingly stiff a parody of the Jewish culture as we've seen in awhile, with a savage streak that probably wouldn't be tolerated if the Coens weren't themselves Jewish.

They claim, in the press notes, that this film is "reminiscent of their childhoods."

If so, they have my sympathy.

Films in the Coen brothers' oeuvre come in three flavors, in order of their palatability to the general public: reasonably straight-ahead dramas (Miller's Crossing, No Country for Old Men), serio-comic morality tales (Raising Arizona, Fargo) and purely demented character studies (Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn't There).

The latter category  lunatic descents down the rabbit hole, which not even Rod Serling's Twilight Zone could have embraced  best characterizes A Serious Man.

I'd call this film unwatchable, except that it's too oddly bizarre to be dismissed entirely.

I'd call it incomprehensible, except that its broad strokes do make sense. Sort of. After a fashion. The dozens of smaller issues don't lend themselves to easy answers, though.

Setting aside the Jewish tropes, the film's core message derives from the two mantras  the Schrodinger's Cat paradox, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle  that are viewed, by our physicist protagonist, as evidence of God's hand: Nothing in life is reliable, so you may as well anticipate the worst at all times.

And the corollary: It's impossible to anticipate every worst, so quit trying.

The time is 1967, the setting a nameless Midwestern suburban community where Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg) teaches physics at a nearby university, and awaits word on his tenure application. His unemployed fuss-pot brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), sleeps on the couch when not spending hours in the only bathroom, draining his sebaceous cyst with some sort of tube-filled sucking contraption.

Larry's son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), is a potty-mouthed, dope-smoking shirker at Hebrew school, doing his best to avoid studying for his upcoming bar mitzvah. Daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) steals money from her father's wallet, in order to save up for a nose job.

As the film opens  following a lengthy prologue, about which more in a moment  Larry's wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces that she wants a divorce in order to shack up with Sy (Fred Melamed), one of their more pompous acquaintances. Judith insists that Larry and Arthur should move out and take a room at a dilapidated motel nearby, so that Sy can move into "her" house once the divorce is final.

Oh, and she wants a "get"  a sanctified Hebrew divorce document  so that she and Sy can marry in the temple.

At work, meanwhile, Larry is confronted by a Korean student who insists that his "F" should be raised to a passing grade; when the boy departs, after having been rebuffed, Larry finds an unmarked white envelope filled with cash.

Subsequent confrontations with both the boy and his father leave the origins of this money ambiguous: If Larry accepts the envelope and changes the grade, it's a "gift"; if he reports the incident, the family will sue for defamation.

The situation is, according to the boy's father, just like Schredinger's Cat: The money is there, but it isn't there.

On top of this, we factor in "minor" irritations such as a racist, gun-toting neighbor who keeps encroaching on Larry's side of their mutual property line; and mounting evidence that Arthur's extra-curricular activities are, ah, less than wholesome.

Larry, perhaps taking the biblical edict too seriously, meekly rolls over and turns the other cheek. Repeatedly. He also seeks advice from a series of increasingly useless rabbis, each of whom avoids Larry's questions while instead spinning supposed parables about concrete parking lots and engraved teeth.

Oh, and speaking of parables, the film opens with a fabricated folk tale that takes place in what looks like the heavy winter of some 19th century Polish shtetl, as a Jewish couple confronts what the wife insists is a dybbuk (evil spirit), despite the fact that this elderly stranger (?) just helped her husband repair his broken wagon.

You'll spend the entire film expecting to learn that Larry is descended from this couple, and that all these calamities result from some century-old curse. You'll wait in vain; nothing ever ties the events in 1967 back to this prologue.

"It doesn't have any relationship to what follows," Joel Coen admits, in the press notes, "but it helped us get started thinking about the movie."



OK, if we assume that Larry is, indeed, being tested by God, then some of the temptations are easy to catalogue, starting with the envelope of cash (greed) and the potential delights offered by an attractive neighbor who sunbathes in the nude (lust). If we expand this notion to include Larry's family, both Arthur and Danny could be considered slothful; Judith absolutely has too much pride; and Sarah clearly envies the better-shaped noses on other girls.

But this exercise begins to seem rather a stretch, and I'm hard-pressed to factor in gluttony and anger.

It's probably easier to view all this tsoris as an exaggerated depiction of the Midwestern Jewish childhood that Joel and Ethan Coen claim to recall, where the local rabbi '"aid nothing, but had a lot of charisma." In other words, this film is a Jewish state of mind more than any attempt to tell a linear narrative.

Going with that flow, however, is unlikely to make the viewing experience any more satisfying.

Stuhlbarg certainly fulfills his role as a nebbish; the more put-upon and humiliated he becomes, the more oddly dignified his bearing. One is hard-pressed to identify or truly sympathize with such a milquetoast, however; his meek compliance to every mounting indignity  and full-out crisis  certainly can't be viewed as a virtue.

That said, Stuhlbarg's increasingly harried expressions and desperately twitching limbs are hilarious. One halfway expects Larry to be followed by his own personal black cloud ... which would shoot lightning and pour rain, of course.

The only other reasonably well developed character is Danny, whom Wolff plays as an unrelentingly self-centered little jerk. Rarely will you hate a kid with such ferocity, and I suppose that speaks well of Wolff's performance.

Here too, though, the press notes are revealing: Ethan Coen admits that their screenplay initially treated Larry and his son as equally important characters, but then the emphasis shifted as the script developed.

Well, it didn't shift enough.

And that, in a nutshell, is the core problem of A Serious Man. It's a half-baked concept in search of better execution. If this film were a stage play, it'd still be working out the bugs in Schenectady  tossing out a scene here, three characters there  during a six-month "tightening up" period before debuting on Broadway.

As it is, this flick ain't ready for prime time.

And I say that with the certain knowledge that many, many Coen fans will embrace A Serious Man with the same fervor that has transformed the similarly inexplicable Big Lebowski into a cult phenomenon, with its own well-attended conventions that annually draw the faithful.

Different strokes...

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