Monday, October 26, 2009

Film Gauge - "A Serious Man" (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)

What: "A Serious Man" (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)
When: Sunday, October 11th, 2009 9:30 PM
Where: Landmark Sunshine (143 E. Houston)

"When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies..."
-Jefferson Airplane

The trials and crises of faith that beset physics professor Larry Gopnik, the harried protagonist of Joel & Ethan Coen's A Serious Man, are more or less the same that have beset countless Job-like literary schlubs throughout the centuries, albeit tinged with a distinctly late-1960s existential malaise. And although the mise-en-scene may have changed, in the Coens' latest there is still a flash of the Biblical amongst the banal suburban Minnesota landscape of F Troop and roadside motels. But what sets A Serious Man apart, both as a parable and as a "Coen Brothers film" (in many ways, it is the film the brothers' entire career has been building toward), is its discomfiting lack of answers.

It is nothing new for the Coens to eschew the traditional storytelling beats of conflict and resolution. The hauntingly abrupt, lyrical conclusion to No Country For Old Men is a prime example of their unconventional approach. Moreover, this sequence seems to have signaled a new direction in the brothers' work, deepening their sometimes hermetic formalism and exploring more earthbound anxieties. This contemplative style is intriguingly furthered by A Serious Man. While the particulars of the setting (an insular, Jewish community in 1960s suburban Minnesota) allow the Coens to indulge their interest in playing with colorful regional dialects, and in this case religious customs, the narrative is markedly divorced from the genre trappings they normally explore in their films. Here, the botched criminal enterprises that permeate the Coens' earlier works give way to an exploration of the ways in which striving to lead a decent life is the greatest swindle of all.

Larry Gopnik, who in many respects is a prototypical Coen brothers sad-sack in the tradition of Fargo's Jerry Lundegaard, stands out in their oeuvre in his desire to play by the rules. He resists the corrupting force of money that befell many a past Coen anti-hero, from Llewelyn Moss to Lundegaard himself, significantly refusing a bribe from a student seeking a passing grade. As portrayed by the superb stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg, Gopnik is well-meaning and principled, yet ineffectual. He tries to be "a serious man" and is dumped on by fate at every turn. For all the criticism leveled at the Coens for the supposed disdain with which they regard their characters, they and Stuhlbarg imbue Gopnik with relatable fears concerning the value of the life he has built. As Larry is relentlessly steamrolled throughout the film by his wife's desire for a divorce, a contested tenure hearing at work and his inability to understand his eccentric brother and jaded children, his dawning crisis is embodied by Stuhlbarg through an assemblage of effectively subtle tics and stutters. The decisions of the filmmakers and the actor to internalize Larry's struggle and resist their more histrionic characterization tendencies proves surprisingly powerful and marks another step forward in the Coens' evolution.

As Larry seeks psychic refuge in the counsel of a series of Rabbis on the eve of his son's bar mitzvah, we arrive at the thematic core of A Serious Man. The Coen Brothers are using the very specific predicament of Larry Gopnik of Minnesota to meditate on the fundamental question of existence: What does it all mean? As expressed in the Jefferson Airplane song that continually wafts through the earbuds of young Danny Gopnik's transistor radio (symbolizing the tidal wave of social change barreling toward their suburban street), the Coens are exploring what happens when everything we hold true is suddenly challenged. Where does one go from that moment of realization? The filmmakers resist easy answers, opting instead to coyly ignore the unknown. In a sequence that serves as some sort of skewed thesis statement for A Serious Man, one of the Rabbis relates to Larry the story of "The Goy's Teeth." The tale concerns a dentist who finds cryptic Hebrew characters etched into the teeth of a gentile patient. He is consumed with figuring out their origin and his life quickly falls apart in the wake of this obsession. Larry understandably and eagerly awaits a resolution to the story that never comes, as the Rabbi trails off, explaining that there are things in life we will simply never understand. Some may argue that this is the film's maddening shortcoming, but it is unmistakably deliberate, and a thought-provoking, though admittedly dour approach.

The closest perhaps that Joel & Ethan Coen come to explaining existence in A Serious Man is in the chilling final sequence, a moment of utter dread that shows us that regardless of purpose, life's various challenges are coming for us and we are powerless to stop them.

Click here to see the "A Serious Man" trailer

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