Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Serious Man (2009)

The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man is undoubtedly their most difficult film to date. Not only is veiled beneath so much Jewish dogma as to be nearly inaccessible to a goy such as myself; not only does it feature a throwaway fable set in the 19th century as its opening scene; not only does it pile on one theme and allusion after another; but it seemingly makes no suggestion about how we’re supposed to interpret any of it. Nowhere in the film is there any overt evidence of an authorial guiding hand as far as theme is concerned (what do these guys really think about religion, anyway?), which is something of an accomplishment in and of itself. The end result is that the viewer ends up feeling just as overwhelmed and beleaguered as Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik, the Minnesota physics professor at the center of the film whose entire life unravels over the course of a few days.

This existentialist approach to storytelling has been the driving force behind all the critical discourse on the film. Theories were proposed left and right, but all it takes is to read a few of the notices of the movie (like Roger Ebert’s surprisingly rambling mess of a review) to see that a lot of critics simply didn’t know what the hell to make of this thing. They seemed to split evenly into two camps. There were those who stood in awe of the film’s narrative complexity and technical precision, like Ebert; but there was also a small but vocal group, including the Village Voice’s Ella Taylor, who wrote it off as jumbled and nihilistic. Both of these strike me as pretty lazy positions to stake out, but when a movie is this perplexing it usually ends up driving people to extremes. The shock and awe crowd made a lot of vague references about the story’s relationship to Kabbalah and the book of Job. Just how similar the two really are is beyond me, but I doubt I’m much different in this regard from most of the people who’ve offered their opinion—truth be told, the whole Job-referencing business smacks of being the kind of critical thread that gets appropriated an repackaged to the point of irrelevance. As for the nihilism folks, they’re missing the point entirely. Sure, the Coens do take a sadistic delight in putting their main character through hell, but that’s something they’ve been doing throughout their entire career. Haven’t these people seen Fargo or No Country For Old Men or even The Big Lebowski?

In saying this I’m making it sound like I have some great understanding of what this movie is really getting at—which, of course, I don’t. Like the anecdote Larry’s Rabbi tells him at one point in the film, there may not be any true answer about what it all means. And maybe that’s the point. You bring to this kind of film what you will, and while I could ramble about what I think the film is saying about fate and goodness and the ways one’s morals can be compromised by circumstances outside their control, it’s hard to say if anyone else would understand or agree with me.

What I can say for sure is that there’s no doubt that the Coens, whatever you think of them, are as masterfully controlled and aesthetically aware here as they’ve ever been—on this count I guess I’m with the “standing in awe” crowd. I’ve never been their biggest fan—which is why I’m writing about this thing now instead of six months ago—but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said they were gifted filmmakers. No Country For Old Men was, for me, one of the most technically perfect movies I’ve seen in the last few years, and A Serious Man matches it shot for shot. Every angle, ever cut, every musical cue bespeaks two filmmakers at the top of their game. That it’s all in the service of something so frustratingly indeterminate is no doubt what’s turned some people off of it. Still, the fact remains that, difficult though it may be, this film is utterly hypnotic. If you can latch onto its visceral, concrete aspects, then the philosophical riddle wrapped up in an enigma at the center of it just becomes icing on the cake.

Todd McCarthy (no longer, as of a few weeks ago, it seems) wrote in his review that A Serious Man is “the kind of movie you get to make after winning the Oscar." True enough, but considering the film’s paltry $15 million at the box office, you have to wonder if it’ll take more gold statues before the Coens can go this deep again. For the sake of film culture, lets hope it doesn’t take too long.

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