Sunday, November 08, 2009
A SERIOUS MAN (Dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)
"No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture." - End credit disclaimer.
In the 25 years since they first burst on the indie movie scene with the stellar BLOOD SIMPLE, the Coen Brothers have hit many cinematic curveballs into the woodwork of their films. Those being character or tangents (or both) that appear not to fit initially into their understood premises and leave us scratching our heads to their purpose in the grand scheme of things.
Examples include: Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) -the high-school classmate of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who oddly appears at an pivotal point in FARGO, the pedophile bowling rival Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) who steals a good 5 minutes of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Ed Crane's (Billy Bob Thornton) UFO dream in THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE. As perplexing as these seemingly ersatz elements are, they are often the most memorable moments of their movies. Imagine if they concocted an entire film out of such scenes.
A SERIOUS MAN isn't quite that concoction, but it comes pretty damn close with its unproven paradoxes, character threads that aren't followed through, and fake-out dream sequences. On the surface it's about the trials and tribulations of Minnesotan physics professor Larry Gobnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the late 60's. Beneath the surface it's about religion, betrayal, academia, Jewish suffering, and a futile search for meaning - I think. When the opening couplet of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love" (a driving force throughout the movie) is recited by a Rabbi as if it's an ancient prayer, you can be sure that what this film is about exactly is going to be up for debate for a long time.
Gobnik is surrounded by headaches - his wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce, his schlebbish but possibly brilliant brother (Richard Kind) sleeps on his couch, his daughter (Jessica McManus) is stealing from his wallet for a nose job, his son (Aaron Wolff) is stealing from her for marijuana, and his tenure may be threatened by a series of slanderous anonymous letters that his school's committee keeps receiving.
There's also a thick headed racist gun-toting neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) and a Korean student (David Kang) who attempts to bribe Gobnik for a passing grade. In a confrontation over that particular no-win situation the student's father tells Gobnik to "accept the mystery."
Obviously that's what the Coen Brothers are telling us too. Here's hoping movie goers got their A-list fill with their previous outing BURN AFTER READING because there are very few recognizable names here. Folks will likely know Richard Kind and Adam Arkin (as a somewhat sympathetic lawyer) from various television roles, but the cast is mostly fresh and unknown with Stuhlbarg's pitch perfect exasperated everyman standing out in the starring role.
As one of the Rabbis that Gobnik seeks solace from, George Wyner (also familiar from TV as well as turns in fan favorites SPACEBALLS and FLETCH) owns one of the best scenes in the film (an instant classic in the Coens canon BTW) relaying a story about a dentist who is shocked to find Hebrew engravings on the back of a non-Jewish patient's teeth. Gobnik's son Danny's (Wolff) bar mitzvah is another notable highlight.
While his father struggles with existential discord, Danny's biggest concerns are out-running a bully he owes money and getting the best possible TV signal so he can watch F Troop. As seen through Danny's stoned eyes, the paranoia pulsating through his coming of age ceremony is pleasingly palpable.
There is quite a bit of humor in A SERIOUS MAN but it's not laugh out loud funny, it's more like inward cringing giggle funny. It has been called the Coen Brother's most personal film as the suburban tract housing world it creates is reportedly identical to the one of their childhood as are the overriding rites of a traditional Jewish upbringing but it rarely comes off auto-biographical. Gobnik and his family's fates are literally about to be twisting in the wind as we leave them and while that's of little comfort - for some reason it made me smile.
One day maybe I'll be able to say exactly why.