Monday, November 16, 2009

"A Serious Man": a dark Jewish comedy even a goy can enjoy

I'm originally from Minnesota. I study films. Ipso facto, I love the Coen Brothers.

I don't love everything they've done. Their remake of "The Ladykillers", despite Tom Hanks' flamboyant portrayal of Professor GH Dorr, was ultimately a let down. I wasn't compelled enough to see "Intolerable Cruelty". Even though I love it, I'll be the first to admit that the sum of "The Big Lebowski" is far less than its parts, even the part where Jeff Bridges is nailed with a coffee mug or has a marmot dropped in his tub.

The fact that the Coens don't aim for the approval of film goers like me, or, more importantly, film goers that flocked to see "2012" this past weekend, is their greatest strength. The unique dialog and flair for dark and ironic comedy that permeates their career works would never have come to light had they set out to be conventional filmmakers. It comes as no surprise, then, that their latest offering, "A Serious Man", is not as accessible as most movies, but is also far more engaging, and funny, than most.

"A Serious Man" takes a page from the Book of Job and applies it to Larry Gopnik (relative unknown Michael Stuhlbarg), a college physics professor in late 1960's Minnesota. Everything that can possibly go wrong in his life does. His wife matter-of-fact-ly announces they need to start thinking about divorce, his tenure is up in the air thanks to anonymous letters, probably written by a disgruntled student, and his idiot-savant brother can't get off the couch or on the right side of the law. He seeks the advice of three rabbis, each of which offers more useless advice than the previous.

In the hands of most other filmmakers, this would be heavy, depressing material. With the Coens, though, it is a comedy, albeit a dark one, that had me laughing almost the duration of the film. I am not exaggerating - for most of the run time, if I wasn't laughing out loud, I was stifling chuckles.

The humor of the Coens comes through the straightforward absurdity they create situations on screen. Larry's children, whom his wife is terrified of dragging into their divorce proceedings, are oblivious to the marital troubles even when Larry is asked to move out of the house. Rather, they are more concerned with the fact his wallet isn't around to pilfer nose job money from, and that "F-Troop" is coming in fuzzy.

When we aren't shown why going to your own Bar Mitzvah stoned is a bad idea or told an ultimately unresolved dental mystery, though, the Coens present a potentially bleak view of the universe with the question, is there an underlying cosmic reason to our suffering? Although they never definitively come to a conclusion, you don't get the sense that Larry's trials will be rewarded like Job's eventually were, but therein lies the conundrum of faith, especially when it comes to Job: it is only through not losing his faith that Job is ultimately rewarded. However, we can't help but ask: if our name isn't Job, are we being tested, or does life just suck huge amounts of ass?

The Coens won't answer for you, but they'll make you laugh as you ponder.

TOO MUCH: the film didn't need the opening sequence

COULD HAVE USED MORE: one more scene with Larry's romantic rival Sy Ableman, as well as one more with his sultry next door neighbor

FILM SNOB NOTE: An attorney Larry is referred to works for Tuckman Marsh, the law firm handling George Clooney's divorce proceedings in "Burn After Reading". Kids on the bus to Hebrew school channel The Dude's bowling buddies in "The Big Lebowski".


IF YOU SAID THIS WAS YOUR FAVORITE MOVIE, I'D THINK: You picked one of the better films of one of the best American writer/director teams around. Mazel tov.

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