Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I think, really, the Jolly Roger is the appropriate course of action.

In the past three years, Joel and Ethan Coen have given us three completely unpredictable movies, each drastically different from the last. The existentalist thriller No Country For Old Men was followed by the misanthropic slapstick of Burn After Reading, the latter as much an absurdist companion to the former as The Big Lebowski is to Fargo. Both films (along with their 2004 misfire The Ladykillers) suggested that the Coens had adapted a more cynical worldview; it's hard to imagine the Coens of today directing the scene in Raising Arizona where Ed breaks up with Hi without ironic Kubrickian distance. If their newest movie, A Serious Man, combines the comic and somber elements of their previous two films, it's also, surprisingly, their most personal movie in years. Set in Minnesota (their home state) in 1970 (when the Coens were teens), A Serious Man is at once their bleakest and most sincere film yet.

A prologue relates a Jewish folktale about a dybbuk, a roaming demon who takes the form of a dead person, before cutting to 1970 and 13-year-old Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) listening to Jefferson Airplane through an earbud in his Hebrew School class. It is Danny's dad Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) for whom the truth is found to be lies; a math professor and a strictly rational man who admits he doesn't really understand Schrodinger's cat, Larry's world is rocked when his wife (Sari Lennick) announces that she is leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a widower regarded in the community as a "serious man." Sy's attempts to console Larry through his own betrayal, as well as false allegations from a student (David Kang) and Larry's brother, who stays on Larry's couch and alternates his time between draining a cyst and working on an all-encompassing probability model called The Mentaculous, as well as other assorted peripheral lunacies, have spun Larry into an existential crisis. We're encouraged to both laugh at Larry's spiralling misfortune and recognize it as our own; it's telling that the Coens admitted Larry was partly inspired by their father, even as they also confess they loved coming up with new ways to torture Larry.

Larry's plight has been frequently compared by critics to Job, although the Coens have pointed out that it's Larry's rational assumptions, rather than his faith, that are being challenged. But there's no question that Larry's story is deeply rooted in Jewish philosophy and humor; if Barton Fink is a horror movie about anti-Semitism, A Serious Man is the Coens' most reflective look at their religion. When Larry asks two rabbis for spiritual counsel, the first pontificates about the wonder of parking lots while the second shares a long parable that only serves to further confuse Larry; the rabbis are the latet in a long line of authority figures sitting behind big desks that the Coens regard warily. At the same time, they're among our most morally serious filmmakers - their films demonstrate over and over that crime doesn't pay. As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out, the Coens have a pragmatic approach to morality - to do good brings "freedom from fear of loneliness and the nagging suspicion your existence is meaningless" (or, as a rabbi in the film puts it, "A sign from Hashem? Don't know. Helping others? Couldn't hurt"). But Larry's fate doesn't seem connected to his actions. He faces constant challenges to his assumptions about the way the world works, from the sexy neighbor (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes nude and asks Larry if he enjoys "the new freedoms" to the Columbia House representative who insists Larry purchased Santana's Abraxas (Stuhlbarg is hilarious as a man in a constant state of freefall). More so even than No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man wrestles with the seeming arbitrariness of existence - it's equal parts hilarious and deeply unsettling.

As with most of the Coens' films, A Serious Man recreates an extremely specific time and place in meticulous detail. Here, Minnesota in 1970 is populated by stage and character actors we have few, if any, prior associations with; the characters feel as if they're born directly from the Coens' memories of their adolescence. Melamed is a particular standout, his sonorous tones the perfect voice for a well-respected man who urges others to do the right thing even as the "right thing" frequently lines up with his own self-interest. If Sy Ableman embodies the contradictions of early-70s suburbia - equal parts amoral and beholden to tradition - they Danny points towards an uncertain future. Presumably the Coens' stand-in, Danny is inarticulate and constantly stoned, his small-scale problems upstaged, finally, by a growing awareness of the chaotic world around him. What finally connects A Serious Man to the previous two films is an ending that refuses to wrap up the inexplicable, and a wary respect for things that cannot be dreamt up in our philosophy.


Jess said...

So, what happened with the goy?

Anonymous said...

The goy...who cares?

Marilyn said...

I can't share your enthusiasm for this film, nor the idea that Larry is undone by his rational approach to things. He's rarely shown actually working at his job, nor is he constantly saying braying at everyone to just be normal. He is one of the most passive individuals I can think of. His turn to religion for answers is doing what others tell him to do, not motivated out of a deep respect for the rabbis and their wisdom. He really doesn't know what else to do because he lives an unconscious life on the invisible tracks laid down for all the middle-of-the-roaders in the world. The Coens do have it in for Judaism, which in itself is not necessarily a problem, but that ends up coming off incredibly mean-spirited. I refuse to find depth in such a massacre. It's just two brothers throwing a cherry bomb into the toilet, only with the whole world watching.

Andrew Bemis said...

Agreed that Larry's passive; when I say he's logical, I don't mean he's very deep. It's his very basic cause-and-effect understanding of his life that is being assaulted. I'm not sure I see the attack on Judaism, though I'll admit I don't quite know of what I speak.

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