Sunday, January 3, 2010

Day 298: A Serious Man (2009) - Rank 4.5/5


For me, the Coen brothers rarely disappoint. Even the much lamented "The Ladykillers" remake has a spot on my DVD shelf (the main gripe that I heard from folks was that it loses its humor and momentum when rolling into the latter third of the film, but I contend: so does the original...which is also on my DVD shelf...). But speaking as someone who can count the number of Coen brothers films he hasn't seen on one hand, I believe that the duo are one of the more solid collaborating teams out there. Their films not only immerse you into the world of their characters, but their daily lives as well. And what a miserable life Larry Gopnik does have.

The Jewish physics professor is facing trouble receiving tenure at his university due to anonymous letters sullying his character, his wife is openly having an affair and demanding a divorce, he's engaged in a property war with his redneck neighbor on one side and experiencing sexual frustration from a nude sunbather on the other, his son is engaging in escalating misbehavior at school...the list goes on. Larry seeks spiritual advice for his plight from a series of rabbis, but each offers little insight into his problems. As is the case with the best of the Coen brothers' serious works, such as "Blood Simple" or the more recent "No Country for Old Men," the film is, simply put, a work of art. The characters, misanthropic and depraved as they may be at times, are human to a fault. And as is the case with any work of art, the interpretations are infinite.

The most obvious allegory present is that of the book of Job, which chronicles the plight of one man who strives to remain faithful to God despite one misfortune after the next. Certainly this is apparent in Larry's situation, but it's never clear how strong his faith truly is. When he seeks to possibly strengthen it, the rabbis serve only to addle his judgment further, a potential, sly social commentary on the futility of organized religions that claim to help individuals comprehend life's purpose, but succeed in masking it instead. Michael Stuhlbarg should definitely have an Oscar nod in the bag, and I really wouldn't be surprised to see the film make the Best Picture list (especially since the nomination list has opened up to ten potential candidates).

I'm certainly glad I managed to catch the film during its short theatrical life. I had a suspicion that the movie would not last long in theatres. As callous as it might be to say it, the film is too Jewish for your average American filmgoer. General audiences like the familiar, even if it's on another planet (hey, white dudes conquering planets has been a staple of sci-fi for a century). If it is the unfamiliar, then you can usually attract audiences by making it a comedy (because Americans like to laugh at things that are different or cultures that they don't understand. Examples: "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," half of Woody Allen's films). There is humor present in "A Serious Man," but it's very dark and cultural. Me? I'm the complete opposite. I was almost absorbed more in Hebrew school and the rigmarole involved in seeing a rabbi that I was in the actual storyline. I love a story that's absolutely saturated in a culture foreign to me. "Gosford Park" would be another prime example, for I was so fascinated by the social etiquette and daily workings of a large, manor staff that I could have cared less about the actual murder. So, a long digression made short, "A Serious Man" = excellent film.

Watch the Best/Most Original Trailer of the Year

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