Friday, November 6, 2009

Film Review: A Serious Man

You find yourself thrust into a world as funny as it is cruel. At first, you have no idea what is going on. But gradually, you learn to cope with this new reality. You learn to laugh because the alternative is to give up and weep in despair. Things happen, random for the most part, with no hint of a pattern. Every so often, however, you find yourself wondering if there is more to this existence than a seemingly meaningless series of events. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is some sort of plan to the whole endeavor, a divine roadmap that brings unity and coherence to everything you experience. You don't have any direct evidence to support this theory, but there is a certain inner satisfaction to be had from this simple faith that all the chaos and madness taking place are part of a larger scheme that is simply beyond your understanding. Perhaps all the suffering and pain that surrounds you serves some greater purpose. The alternative, perhaps too grim to bear, is that all this anarchic turmoil means absolutely nothing.

Pop Quiz: What did I just describe?
a) Your life
b) The average Coen Brothers movie

Trick question, of course. The answer is "c) All of the above". The Coen Brothers have the sneaky ability to make a film that suggests it might be incredibly deep, but, at the same time, it might just be a bunch of quirky scenes tied together by a thin, gloomy excuse for a plot. You just don't know. Is there some sort of deep symbolic message to The Big Lebowski, for example, or is it just some Dude hanging out in LA?

The Coen Brothers' new movie, A Serious Man, is not necessarily any more transparent than the the duo's previous works, as they seem to thrive on this cinematic obliqueness. But it seems to be asking the question that has only been hinted at in previous films: Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there a meaning to this chaotic, violent world in which we live?

Find out, after the jump.

A Serious Man centers around Larry Gopnik, a midwestern Jewish college professor in the 1960s, a married man and father of two. His students are trying to take advantage of him. His children ignore him. His wife wants to marry another man. His penniless brother-in-law acts as a parasite, taking advantage of Larry's good nature to live under the Gopnik's roof, not even trying to find a job. The anti-Semitic next-door neighbor treats Larry like crap. The list goes on.

Larry takes his faith very seriously. As his life falls apart around him, he speaks with a series of rabbis, hoping that perhaps religion will provide him some guidance through these hard times. In contrast, the movie gives us Larry's son Danny, an unloving ingrate of a son who spends the bulk of his time smoking pot, watching F-Troop, and whining. Danny's bar mitzvah is in a few days, but he couldn't care less about his faith.

If this sounds like bleak, depressing stuff, then you've never seen a Coen Brothers movie. The directorial duo has the ability to find a laugh in the uncanniest of places. But the audience is never laughing at Larry's misfortunes. Rather, the laughs come from the sheer absurdity of the situation. It is the very definition of a black comedy - laughter is the only alternative to breaking into tears at Larry's horrible predicament.

The Coen Brothers have been described as nihilistic, even misanthropic. Their previous two films did nothing to dispel this notion - No Country for Old Men perfectly adapted the violent wasteland of Cormac McCarthy's novel to the big screen. But where No Country was bleak, serious stuff, last year's underrated Burn After Reading was instead an exercise in madcap anarchy - a screwball version of nihilism, if you will. I am sure there will be critics who dismiss A Serious Man as a similarly depressing exercise. They will be wrong. A Serious Man takes the sense of hopelessness from the previous two movies, and puts a great big question mark after it.

As Larry talks with his rabbis, and his friends in the faith, he struggles with the question of why these horrible things are happening to him. He tries to be a good man, resisting the temptation of his sexy female neighbor, refusing to accept a bribe from a student, caring for his children even when they show him no love in return. In this respect, A Serious Man functions as a modern day Book of Job. Is there a divine plan to Larry's existence? Or is it, in the end, meaningless?

The Coen Brothers leave this question ambiguous. One almost might be tempted to say that they don't even attempt to answer the question, that A Serious Man is a film that delights in torturing its main character without providing any kind of solace or catharsis. But, while scenes may seem irrelevant, opaque or downright weird, I believe that the Coen Brothers do have a method to their madness. Larry teaches physics, and there are plenty of allusions in the film to Schrödinger's Paradox, or the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle, indicating that perhaps there is a limit to our knowledge and understanding about the world.

Yet there are certain coincidences in Larry's life that suggest that events might be related, that there is a causal relation between Larry's actions and the events that happen to him. Can we ever know if our actions directly influence what sort of luck we receive? Is there a divine being looking out for us, or is the world nothing but chaos, death and evil? In both the cryptic opening scene and the film's powerful final shot, the audience is left to reflect on that very question. (Though the recurring lyrics of a certain song suggest that the answer may not be as complicated as we might think.)

If you haven't figured out by now, I loved this movie. It's in competition with The Hurt Locker as the best movie I've seen this year. I would even go so far to place it in the top ranks of the Coen Canon, alongside such masterpieces as The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men. The dialogue is snappy, the satire right on target, and the Coens can pull off the the integration of the comic and the tragic like no one else. Most of the actors are relatively unknown, but there isn't a weak link in the cast. Michael Stuhlbarg is especially convincing as Larry, the naive but earnest protagonist. But Aaron Wolf steals the show as Larry's ungrateful son Danny, who makes portraying an apathetic stoner 14-year old look easy. This is a movie that is as much about Larry's faith as it is Danny's lack of it, and both principal actors deliver performances that are comically memorable without being overstated, tragic without being pitiful.

Frankly, the most impressive thing for me was the deft juggling act that the film managed to pull off, as more and more crises are added to poor Larry's life. Larry's brother-in-law is arrested. The neighbors are building a boat shed that comes close to the property line. Larry is up for tenure, and the tenure committee is receiving anonymous letters about his character. Larry's son owes money to a bully at school. In the hands of a lesser director, this sort of movie could fall apart, splitting into thousands of unrelated tangents. But the Coen Brothers are very effective storytellers, and they manage to tie it altogether somehow. The film never feels messy or fragmented. It's a remarkable piece of work.

The humor only fell flat in a few places. There were a bit too many dream sequences for my liking, and I have a feeling a lot of the Jewish humor went straight over my goy head. I'm sure the movie will have its detractors, people who continue to accuse the Coen Brothers of shallow cynicism, or even meaninglessness. But this movie easily has the most warmth and humanity out of any Coen Brothers film since O Brother Where Art Thou, and some of the scenes are downright touching. There's also a healthy dose of pessimism, of course, but for once the Coen Brothers are investigating the conflict between spiritual idealism and world-weary disenchantment. If you want a movie that's neither completely a comedy nor completely a tragedy, but instead a piece of art that acknowledges that one's life is made up of both elements, go see A Serious Man.

Final Rating: 89 Congos.