Friday, October 02, 2009

A Serious Man: A Mensch in Peril

I've long been cool on the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. Their most lauded works, Fargo, Miller's Crossing, and Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men didn't impress me. Sure, the films were made competently, the writing was of a good standard, the films all looked good on a technical level, but none of them hit me emotionally. Even the film of theirs I'd found most enjoyable, Barton Fink, left me with nothing. What I did admire in their films were the performances, which often had moments of very quiet, subtle comedy, and I liked that so many of them were archetypes, through and through, from John Turturro's pretentious playwright in Barton Fink, to Tim Robbins' gee-whiz wunderkind and Jennifer Jason Leigh's acid-tongued Girl Friday in The Hudsucker Proxy, to Francis McDormand's mother/cop in Fargo, the characters were types and cartoons almost, but living, breathing ones. But what kept me cold from the Coen Brothers was their seeming lack of passion. I never felt anything while watching their films, and though films can do a great many things, moving an audience is one of the greatest and in my mind, most vital. I had also been somewhat unimpressed by the Coens most popular, devotee-making film The Big Lebowski. I saw it once, I found it mildly amusing and surprisingly sloppy. I saw it a second time, this time in a movie theater, and I liked it a little more but still wasn't crazy about it, and then a funny thing happen. The film had found a way into my mind, and I started to think about it, every element, and a new film seemed to emerge. I saw it again and suddenly the film opened up for me. The jokes were funny, the story compelling, the mise-en-scène (oh yeah, I'm pulling it out in paragraph one) deliriously brilliant. I had fallen in love with the film, and where repeat viewings of their other films only cemented my distaste for them, familiarity with The Big Lebowski made me appreciate the complexities and nuance of every scene. Though I was far from joining the cult of quoters and White Russian drinking attendees of the annual Lebowskifest, I had found an entree into two of modern cinema's most critically adored figures. But I don't just think it's me who was different, the Coens operate in that films (and their 2008 espionage satire Burn After Reading) in a different manner, allowing emotion or comedy to trump perfection. So many of their films feel so sterile to me, as if they are dispassionately saying, "Yes, this would be the most effect shot here, for this long, according to this guide to tension we purchased," and because of that they lacked air to feel, for the audience to project onto the screen any part of them selves.

I give this account of my history with the Coens as context for my thoughts on their new film A Serious Man, which opened in New York today and will open across the country in the following weeks. My immediate reaction upon seeing the film was that this is the Coen Brothers' masterpiece. Before I sat down in that screening room I wouldn't have considered that the Coen Brothers' were capable of making a masterpiece, and two hours later I had been moved, I had laughed, I had been shocked, and most of all I had become reverent of the Coens.

The following paragraph contains mild spoilers for A Serious Man.

The film opens with quote "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." The quote is from medieval French Rabbi Rashi, and the scene that follows it is a completely disconnected story of a ghost who comes to visit a poor family. This scene, spoken entirely in Hebrew Yiddish, shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, vignetted as if looking through a glass bottle, is an audacious masterstroke. I guarantee no other film owned by Universal Pictures opens with a ten minute scene in Hebrew about a ghost, particularly one as possibly confounding and head-scratching as this one. I will not attempt to explain the scene's inclusion, nor analyze it's substance, but I would point to the Rashi quote preceding it for clues as it's to it's necessary-ness. From there, after a brilliant opening credit sequence, we are thrust into the life of Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), a middle-aged, Jewish, College Physics Professor in Minnesota. Larry is married and has two children, one just out of High School, the other on the eve of his Bar-Mitzvah. The film is set in the mid 1960s, pot is everywhere, and the music of Jefferson Airplane pipes into Larry's son's portable radio. From this introduction, we follow Larry through an increasing serious of misfortune: his wife wants to divorce, his brother sleeps on his couch, his possible tenure is in question, and he has a Korean-American student who is trying to bribe him for a better grade. Larry wants to be a serious man, a righteous man, he wants his family together, his job secure, and he wants to be happy. When these things star piling up on him, Larry is shocked, they seem to come out of nowhere. Larry visits a Rabbi, who tells him God is everywhere, even in the parking lot outside. He sees a second Rabbi, who tells him a story about a Dentist who discovered Hebrew lettering on the inside of a goyum's teeth. He tries to visit a third Rabbi, a calm, very old man who Larry sees sitting passively at his desk. Larry is told the Rabbi is busy. "He didn't look busy!" Larry is told that the Rabbi is thinking. What the Rabbi is actually doing may be explained by a scene late in the film, but spoiling that moment would serve no purpose in this review.

No more spoilers.

There is no way to give a sense of how this film feels other than seeing it yourself. I can explain the structure, and the cinematography, and the acting and the music, but it would give no clearer a picture. This film feels like no other I've seen. Events pile on, one after another, in a way it's a portrait of life being lived, shown in the most peculiarly realistic manner possible. What I can explicate is a few of the ideas in the film. What does it mean to be good? Is being good enough? How may we forgive one another of our foibles? Why would anyone think it's a good idea to stay at the Jolly Roger?

What I believe I respond to so much in this film is the emotional connection I had with the characters. The reason I had those connections is because this film feels personal. Based on pure biological fact, this is a personal film for the Coen Brothers. They grew up in the place and time the film takes place, they are both Jewish, their parents were both Professors, but it's unfair to attempt to link their personal lives with the lives of the characters in this film. However, the personal nature relates to the effectiveness directly, for once, there is feeling in their work. I have not just been told a story, I have been shown an emotional journey, and shared in it. This makes the film better, the funny parts funnier, and the film making more impressive.

Roger Deakins, the Coens' usual cinematographer, has never been better. The performances across the board are terrific, particularly from lead Michael Stuhlbarg, who creates a likable, put upon man, and has helped create an iconic character. Like the Coens other films, Larry is an archetype: a middle class, suburban, intellectual Jew, and by conforming (in some respects) to an archetype, they're able to explore a number situations where the audience must know how Larry feels, without having to explain those thoughts in narration or dialogue.

This is a film that rewards repeat viewings. It doesn't trip over itsself to explain things to the audience, sometimes it is purposefully ambiguous, extending to the ending of the film, one of the most surprising and masterful I have ever seen. The Coen Brothers can now count me in their camp of admirers. A Serious Man is a great film, and a masterpiece, and I couldn't be happier to say it.


  1. Just a correction, the opening sequence was in Yiddish not Hebrew.

  2. Thanks Aaron, I knew that but somehow got mixed up in the reviw. Thanks for reading.

  3. excellent review, and it helped to have your
    Coen Bros. 'experience' back story. I have always
    liked their films because at the very least they
    had an individual,original'stamp'.

    This is what is called 'artistic maturity'. Serious Man adds to their growing body of work with what I hope is a new era of true
    story-telling, not just odd characters, in Coen
    Bros. movies. Great review.


  4. Thank you for the kind words. A month later and another viewing sense I'm still in awe of the film. How did you happen on my review? (If I may ask.)