Sunday, October 18, 2009

A movie review: A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009)

Directors - Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Runtime – 105 min; R

Larry Gopnick - Michael Stuhlbarg
Uncle Arthur - Richard Kind
Sy Ableman - Fred Melamed

It is no coincidence that the bearded figure who plays a prominently minor role in the new Ethan Coen and Joel Coen directed film A Serious Man, holds the last name of Ableman. He is after all, an able man, an all-knowing, community-respected, and generally speaking, a serious man, one who can sort of back door his way into taking your wife away from under your nose and still bring wine to your house for dinner and give you a lesson on how to enjoy it. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), upon learning all about Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and a plethora of sticky life situations, wants to also be a serious man, of sorts - how to go about it, that’s the problem.

I find myself a bit puzzled as to how to write about this film, since, for one, I have no working knowledge of the Book of Job or of 1960s Jewish culture (both of which play roles in the film.) I do, however, have a pretty good grasp of what excellent writing and perfectly timed humor can do to an audience, and in my case, an audience filled primarily with sexagenarians was laughing without pause. Of course, as with some films that can be considered comedic and serious, this is not simply a bunch of crass jokes, rather an intricate weaving of layers that lead from one laugh to the next, getting there by way of some seriously messed up situations.

We begin with a curious fable of sorts that lasts 10 minutes, with a scene conducted in Yiddish from century’s old Poland in which a small debate of good and evil can be surmised. Think about this scene as you view the film and just try to get a general grasp of its meaning, why is it there at all? You may not come up with anything, but I think it can be revealing in many ways which help you understand the nature of Larry and the world in which he lives.

The film takes place in the suburbs of the 1960s. As a professor of physics and mathematics, Larry works a great deal with certainty and the notion that the world has answers for everything if you know where to look. It is with a series of Rabbis that Larry ultimately seeks advice and it is within these scenes that we get the skilled writing of the Cohen brothers blasting us with wit and sarcasm, but also furthering the story along. The Cohens are masters of keeping us coherent of the characters in their movies, even when they are not on screen, and you never forget that the son is off smoking dope or the daughter is stealing money for a nose job or the neighbors are redneck hunters trying to encroach on Larry’s property boundaries – all of these sub-plots are fresh in your mind throughout, so that when the writing calls for the audience to remember that the uncle is a deadbeat cyst-sucking waste of space, the audience is already in the moment and can move with or against the flow of sympathy or repulsion.

I’m pretty sure some of you will see the resemblances to the film Election (1999), another dark comedy concerning a teacher going through a lot of life issues. I’m not going to stretch it too far and say they are ‘similar’ but I did think of it while watching and it is such a guilty pleasure movie for me I wanted to tie it in somehow. Like the teacher played by Matthew Broderick, Larry finds himself mixed up with a student in an unconventional way, and one which threatens to bring down his standing in the community as well as professionally. This all leads to some hilarious situations which, 2 days later, I still find myself laughing out loud.

The broader aspects of the film, those concerning Jewish culture, but, just as much, those concerning human nature, are portrayed wonderfully through this film as only the Cohens know how to do. A disconcerting score at times is weaved beautifully with classic sounds of the era, and every time you hear some of the score you realize just how important it is to the film itself. I don’t know who to recommend this film to, but I feel it is so well done that everyone should give it a chance.

Now that my review is complete, I look forward to reading any and every review I can get my hands on, because I know there is much much more to this film than I have covered.

***** out of 5

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