Monday, November 09, 2009

(SORT-OF) REVIEW: A Serious Man

By now, the Coen brothers have well established that they are master filmmakers. However, in addition to being masters of filmmaking craft in general, they're also the masters of a particular brand of film.

I call it the "What the Hell was THAT?" Film

Almost all of their movies have gotten that reaction from me - and almost all of them in a good way. But no film prompted a more dramatic take on that reaction than their masterpiece, A Serious Man, their story of a plagued Jewish man suffering any and all kinds of misfortunes in 1967.

Before I get to the meat of the film, I must lay a little groundwork and define a "What the Hell was THAT?" film. Such a movie catches you off guard in such a way that you don't know what you just saw, but you're pretty sure it was great.  O Brother Where Art Thou? was one. No Country for Old Men was another. So was Burn After Reading, especially after a second viewing. Even when I think I know all their quirks and all their tricks, Joel and Ethan put a spin on them and make them seem brand new.

A Serious Man isn't their best movie, but no film of their is more endearingly peculiar, or more idiosyncratic. Indeed, no film of the Coens may be more ...  them. It bears all their hallmarks: Put-upon characters who can't get anything right, odd camera angles, a particular fondness for the wide-angle lens, rat-tat-tat dialogue that circles around a particular word or phrase, which in this case, is "fucker." Apparently Jewish kids in 1967 called each other "fucker" quite a lot.

I point out that particular profanity not to be vulgar, but to demonstrate just what a grab bag of live wires this movie is. This is a movie where the F-bomb serves as a signifier, that finds deep meaning in Jefferson Airplane, that uses abrupt sequences which may or may not be dreams - there's even a brilliantly baffling pre-title sequence that's not only entirely in Yiddish, but is shot in the 1.37: 1 academy ratio used by most movies made prior to the 50s.

It strikes me that my thoughts might seem to be running all over the map, and indeed they are. This is one instance where I'm glad I'm not reviewing for a mass-media publication, because there is simply no way I can properly review A Serious Man after seeing it only once.

However, I am still going to take a stab at What I Think It All Means. I'll avoid spoilers, but this section of the post is best appreciated after you've seen the film.

(Cracks knuckles)

OK, here goes - A Serious Man is sort of a Jewish spin on No Country for Old Men.  Hear me out on this one.

No Country for Old Men struck me as being about the futility of trying to deal with evil, as personified by Anton Chigurh. You could delay evil's coming by knocking him/it down for for awhile, but sooner or later he would come and make his claim - if not on you, then on somebody close to you.

A Serious Man spins that thusly: It's about the futility of trying to figure out the meaning of life.

In the film, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is falling apart. His life is a complete shambles. His wife is leaving him. One of his students tries to bribe him. His brother gets arrested. He has medical problems. His son has a particular fondness for F Troop.

Larry goes to one person after another, to one Rabbi after another, trying to seek if not help, some sort of reason why all this is happening to him. One person even tells him a crazy story about a dentist's patient who had a hidden Hebrew message inscribed in the backs of his lower front teeth.

If only Gropnik knew - there IS no explanation. That's what I took away from the film.

What it said to me was that sometimes life hands you nothing but lemons for reasons beyond your control, and there's nothing you can do about it. You may ask God why it's all happening to you, or wonder what it is you did to "deserve" all this - but in those questions lie madness, so you might as well not wonder. The best you or anyone can do is take the hits as they come, and find solace in whatever blessings you have in life, because nothing matters more than those, especially in trying times.

At least, that's what A Serious Man said to me.  If you love offbeat cinema, I urge you to see it as soon as you can, but I'll forgive you if right now you're saying to yourself, "What the hell was THAT?"



Allison Dickson said...

This review got me really excited to see the film. I particularly love this line:

"The best you or anyone can do is take the hits as they come, and find solace in whatever blessings you have in life, because nothing matters more than those, especially in trying times."

Any movie with that as a theme will almost always have me buying a ticket.

Susan said...

I was lucky enough to spend a year with actor Michael Stuhlbarg in a production of Cabaret in NY. He is one of the finest (perfectionist!) actors I've known and one of the dearest human beings. I couldn't be happier that now the entire industry (and public) will recognize this! It took the Coens to create a leading role for an actor like Michael!

Sir Critic said...

Susan: And to think I saw BOTH of you in that amazing show! How cool is that??

vistavision said...

I think one of the career themes of the Coens is the inability of good people to understand the motives of evil people. Marge can't understand the kidnappers. Sheriff Bell can't understand Chigurh. The Dude can't understand the rug thieves. I guess in this one, Gopnik can't understand fate.

Anonymous said...

Wow I can't wait to see this and I stopped reading your review at the suggested point. I was afraid to read further until we've seen the pic. I love the Coens. No one sets the mood, dialog and time better! They are the masters of that and it sounds like I won't be disappointed in them yet again!