29 December 2009

A Serious Man

Written & Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Full credits at IMDb

The Coen Bros. could stand to be more serious men. But at the start of A Serious Man, an exploration not of God’s silence but of the inscrutability of His message, they’re up to their old shit again. The brothers’ problem has always been their propensity for characters that are goofier than their context allows—madcap caricatures where real(ish) people ought to be. Their last two films, though antithetical in tone, have avoided the problem: No Country for Old Men might have been called Some Serious Men, as it was as drained of all humor as their moody debut Blood Simple. (Beth Grant, in a small part, was a notable exception, but the brevity of her screen time makes it forgivable.) Burn After Reading, on the other hand, was a zany satire of D.C. politics that demanded silly performances—and got them, from A-list or top-shelf masters (Clooney, Pitt, Malkovich; Frances McDormand) who know how to be nutty without crossing That Line.

But A Serious Man opens with a Yiddish ghost story that nearly ruins the film, not only with its broad archetypes (which are never as funny as the Coens think) but with its undermining message. Thankfully, the film quickly moves to the Midwest ca. 1967, a heartland suburbia of manicured lawns and one-level houses that’s positively Wonder Years, and focuses on the Jews there trying to retain their heritage while taking advantage of America’s promise of prosperity. This is a world the Coens know—it’s the one in which they were raised—and so they bring to it a serious authenticity; even when it’s funny and silly, it’s undergirded by an emotional gravity. The Coens are comfortable here. The eccentric characters—particularly a series of rabbis—feel like they truly belong in this absurd place where religious tradition butts heads with political realities.

Michael Stuhlbarg, the great eccentric stage actor beginning his much-welcome inroads into the pictures, stars as Larry Gopnik, a physics professor and 20th Century American Job: his wife is leaving him (for the hilarious Fred Melamed); his brother (a humorously repellent Richard Kind) is sleeping on his couch; his son, on the cusp of bar mitzvah, is a stoner chased down the street by dealers to whom he is indebted; the success of his tenure-review is threatened by a series of anonymous, disparaging letters and an attempted bribe from a South Korean student; he is as deplored by his red-meat neighbors for his persuasion as A Single Man’s protagonist is for his orientation. (Though, as one scene makes clear, Jew still trumps Chink.)

Why the string of bad luck? The Coens compare humanity’s relationship-to-God to a rooftop antenna: just as the Gopniks can’t get F Troop to come through clearly, so too is humanity receiving a garbled signal they can’t decipher. Why does God supply us with the potential to ask questions when he won’t give us any answers? Why is he penalizing us when we haven’t done anything wrong? (The Coens find a brilliant symbol for this in the Columbia Record Club, which keeps charging you for albums precisely because you haven’t done anything.) The brothers cloak their bleak theology in the cover of comedy, but the pain and injustice of a world in which God only takes and does not give—in which he punishes the seemingly unoffending—is clear and deep. So why that stupid opening, which suggests we can attribute Gopnik’s trials to a 100-year-old curse? Less than establishing a sins-of-the-father theme, it merely suggests an easy answer for the complex existential conflicts the Coens do such a superb job of laying out through the rest of the film. Grade: A-

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