Saturday, October 17, 2009

Movie review: A Serious Man

With A Serious Man, the Coen brothers once again deliberate on matters existential. This time their prism is Larry Gotnick (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish professor of physics in 1960s Minnesota suburbia.

Larry is enjoying a relatively prosperous and successful life as the story opens. He and his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) have two teenage children, Sarah (Jessica McManus) and Danny (Aaron Wolff). Larry is being considered for tenure at his job and looks forward to Danny's bar mitzvah in the near future. His brother, Aaron (Richard Kind), is sleeping on the couch after having some trouble with gambling.

When one of Larry's students tries to bribe him for a passing grade, Larry rejects the offer out of hand, with the certitude of a morally-aligned man. Then, things start coming apart. In rapid fire succession, a series of catastrophes cascade down upon Larry. His wife, he learns, has fallen in love with another man, the cloyingly avuncular Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). His tenure at work is in doubt as a result of the review board receiving anonymous letters accusing Larry of "moral turpitude." Brother Aaron's troubles flare up again. Legal bills and lawyer fees mount.

In his time of crisis, Larry turns to his faith. He consults with three rabbis hoping to equip himself with the ancient wisdom of his people, with the tools his faith offers for such times.

That's about as far as I want to go in recounting the story.

For Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man is a return to their own childhood, their own upbringing. And the poignancy implied by that reality is visible in this flick. Firstly, Serious Man is as funny as any of the brothers' previous efforts. At the viewing I attended, the audience laughed out loud throughout. Permeated with a wise resigned pessimism, the film offers another fascinating (at least, from a gentile perspective) glimpse into Jewish tradition and worldview. (The prologue for the film is a tale from European Jewish folklore, involving a “dybbuk," or evil spirit.) But also, Larry Gotnick is perhaps the most sympathetic and noble protagonist the Coen Brothers have yet created. He is the portrait of all well-meaning, bewildered, and frightened-but-brave human beings. He faces his fate admirably and courageously.

I believe it is a measure of the respect that the Coen brothers have for their audience that they do not deliver cut-and-dried answers to the questions that their movies pose. One should never expect from them a story with conclusion neatly nailed-down in all four corners. A big part of the appeal of their work is that they invite intellectual participation from their audience.

Well, with A Serious Man, the result of their efforts lives up to what we have come to expect from them: a flawlessly written, delightfully peopled tale that poses ancient questions about morality, about faith, about acceptance.

No comments: