Saturday, November 21, 2009

Review - A Serious Man

"But I didn't do anything!" an exasperated Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) cries at numerous points during A Serious Man. The central character in the Coen brothers' latest film is assailed by misfortune at every turn, but his only reaction is to wear a bewildered expression and to cry plaintively "I didn't do anything!" The endless passivity of Larry is one of the more unusual aspects of the Coens' funny, frustrating, brilliant and perplexing new film. A Serious Man follows the professor and family man as his life unravels around him. His wife (Sari Lennick) tells him she is leaving him for another man, the unctuous Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed, giving a beautifully judged performance); one of his students tries to bribe him for a better grade; a series of poison-pen letters are threatening his tenure; and his homeless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is still sleeping on the couch. And yet, Larry remains a helpless victim as a series of indignities reign down upon him, seemingly unable to find it within himself to retaliate. Forget Ed Crane, Larry is The Man Who Wasn't There.

Perhaps Larry is simply cursed from day one, unable to alter the course of his fate. A Serious Man opens with a kind of Jewish folk tale, somewhere in 19th century Europe, involving a couple being visited by a man who may or may not be a dybbuk, or undead spirit. The brief, amusing intro is spoken entirely in Yiddish, and while it has no literal connection to the events that follow, it does set the tone effectively for the rest of the film. This is unquestionably the brothers' most Jewish film to date, a fact that – along with the late-60's Minnesota setting – has led many people to believe that it is also their most personal. Perhaps it is, although I suspect the Coens are unlikely to be so nakedly autobiographical, and A Serious Man may simply be an excuse for them to find ample humour in some of the more bizarre and obscure corners of Judaism.

As Larry's life collapses around him, he seeks solace in his faith, turning to a number of rabbis, each of whom flummoxes him with obtuse metaphors or parables that fail to illuminate his situation. One of these is the story of "The Goy's Teeth", a fantastical tale of a Jewish dentist who discovers a message engraved in Hebrew on the back of a non-Jew's teeth. This little segment of A Serious Man is a wonderful Coen touch; surreal, funny, and it builds to a great punchline. When the rabbi has spun his tall tale, Larry asks what happened to the Goy in the end; "The Goy?" the rabbi responds, "Who cares?" It's one of the film's highlights, but it also defines the film's problematic tone. It's ultimately a throwaway anecdote that doesn't take Larry – or us – anywhere, and such flippancy seems to undermine the film's assessment of grander themes such as fate and the meaning of life, or the ambiguously apocalyptic finale the Coens build towards.

That finale will cause howls of protest from some quarters, while other will laud the brothers' daring. Personally, I thought the ending felt a little off, failing to his the exact note that previous Coen climaxes – such as Barton Fink (the final shot being one of cinema's most perfect moments) or No Country for Old Men – have achieved. The narrative leading to this point is essentially a collection of loosely connected miseries for Larry to suffer, and the film's momentum is uneven as a result, but the Coens handle each of the picture's individual elements with consummate skill. It's nothing new to praise their filmmaking craft, and once again, there's hardly a moment in A Serious Man that isn't enhanced by their stunningly precise direction, or Roger Deakins' flawless cinematography. Naturally, the performances are pitch-perfect too, with the surprisingly unknown ensemble (Richard Kind, Adam Arkin and Michael Lerner are the sole recognisable names) all stepping up with memorable turns, even if many of them fail to turn their roles into anything more than rather broad caricatures.

"Why does God make us feel the questions is He's not going to give us any answers?" Larry asks one rabbi, and it's easy to see this line as the Coens pre-empting the complaints of baffled audience members. I'm a little torn about passing final judgement on A Serious Man, and so I'm going to hedge my bets slightly, in the knowledge that every Coen brothers film rewards repeated viewings. I found their latest film amusing and fascinating to watch, although it ultimately feels like a bit of a frustrating tease. Maybe in time I'll learn to "accept the mystery", and unlock whatever secret it is that's required to bring this unusual film into focus. Right now, all I know is that A Serious Man depicts life as being meaningless, random and cruel, and God – or possibly the Coens – will always have the last laugh.