Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: A Serious Man

It's always wonderful to hear that the Coen Brothers have a new film. They have enough security to experiment in unusual ways, following up the harrowing No Country for Old Men with the wacky and cynical Burn After Reading. A Serious Man has already had mixed reactions and I can understand why: for example, it begins with a Yiddish prologue set in nineteenth century Poland and features a wealth of difficult -- and entirely singular -- characters.

The prologue, however, sets up the theme of Job-like suffering. What seems to be a lucky break turns out to be a curse. Around every corner lies another opportunity for things to go horribly wrong. Typical of the Coen Bros, every character is both completely rendered and magnificently odd, which is part of their magic. You can't imagine anyone like them, but you believe them.

At the center of the lovingly captured 60s Minnesota setting is under-siege math professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg). He's up for tenure but his department chair (who never quite enters his office, hovering instead at the doorway) keeps assuring him that the anonymous letters they're receiving about his moral turpitude will not really be taken seriously in their deliberations. Larry worries that the student currently disputing his grade might be behind the letters and the strain is evident. Maybe because I'm going through the same process at present I found it especially and painfully funny.

He's completely blind-sided by his wife Judith's (Sari Lennick) revelation that she will be leaving him for the more manly yet touchy-feely Sy Abelman (played with aggressive mellowness by Fred Melamed). Judith's exasperation with Larry's failure to understand and Sy's bear hugs only make Larry more miserable and confused. It doesn't help that the house is filled with his self-absorbed daughter, would-be delinquent son and his peculiar brother (played with painful abjectness by Richard Kind) working on a theory of everything while constantly draining the abscess on the back of his neck.

There are running jokes that get better as they go along, spot on perfect renderings of the time which make Scandinavian Minnesota look like a hermetically Jewish enclave. Larry's increasingly desperate search for meaning and solace turns up only more bizarre answers and coincidences, until we reach the final frames of the film with a jaw-dropping moment of "uh oh!"

Brilliant cast, beautifully authentic look, outlandishly and bizarrely plausible and so real -- I really enjoyed this.


Todd Mason said...

Excellent. I was rather hoping this would be good, particularly when contemplating the perhaps three or five possibly good films in release right now (ZOMBIELAND seems to have disappeared before I caught it in a theater).

Todd Mason said...

Speaking of current film...

Terry Gross, living down to my expectations on today's FRESH AIR: Stop-motion animation was invented, I think, for KING KONG...[actually, that exceeds my expectations of even her ignorance.]

Wes Anderson, living down to my expectations: Actually, the guy who did the animation on KING KONG, Willis...Willis...Willis I think...Something...

[It doesn't occur to anyone at FRESH AIR to provide, even after the fact, the "O'Brien"]

C. Margery Kempe said...

Criminy -- don't they at least have Google close to hand?! Gaah.

Yeah, I'd heard mixed reviews, but I thought even a not so good Coen Bros film is usually way ahead of other films. It's the utterly believable surreality that makes it work. If you don't have a dark sense of humor, it may not have the same effect, but I was completely engaged. It could have lasted hours longer and it would have stayed interesting at the same pace because the characters are richly developed and it has the ups and downs (and mundane bizarreness) of life.