Wednesday, May 5, 2010

In Brief: A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

"Even though you can't figure it out, you'll still be responsible for it on the midterm!" That's Prof. Lawrence Gopnik closing a class on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle in the middle of a midlife meltdown in the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen. This one has something to do with fables, and it's a kind of fable itself. As his wife leaves him and he lusts after a nude-sunbathing neighbor, as a student tries to bribe him into improving a midterm grade, as a neighbor's boat house encroaches on the property line, as his mad-genius brother gets into ever deeper legal trouble, as the Columbia Record Club calls him repeatedly over unpaid bills on albums he didn't know he was buying, Larry desperately seeks meaning in events. He yearns for a story that will explain things for him, as many people yearned in 1967.

Michael Stuhlbarg finds himself between an immigrant (do the Coens have a thing about Asians?) and a suspicious goy in A Serious Man. Below, he tries to absorb the essence of the historical moment.

In this period piece the Coens use a Jewish community as a microcosm of Sixties America, its slightly alien quality an analogue for a mannered formality in the larger culture that seems alien to us now, but its mystical tradition also symbolizing the stumbling spiritual seeking under way. The connection is most obvious in the tour-de-force "Second Rabbi" episode, in which the rabbi narrates the Tale of the Goy's Teeth to a Hendrix soundtrack. The Coens try the same juxtaposition to more jokey effect when the ancient Rabbi Marshak recites lyrics from a Jefferson Airplane song and the names of the band members -- except that he can't quite remember Jorma's last name. Can these wise men offer any guidance to Larry, his son Danny, or us in the audience? It seems so, though the record is mixed. Some of the advice he gets ("Look at the parking lot, Larry!") is pretty useless. Later, Larry's told, "Doing nothing is not bad," but as a Columbia billing rep explains, doing nothing means you get the Selection of the Month automatically, and you have to pay for it. On the other hand, the moral of the Goy's Teeth story seems to recommend patient endurance in riding out the spiritual storms of the moment, advice virtually borne out by the end as Larry's life seems to turn back for the better. It also seems borne out negatively when one more ordeal causes Larry to at last succumb to temptation and invite almost instant retribution -- including a literal storm that might well prove to be the wrath of God.

By doing without stars this time the Coens' writing comes to the forefront more than ever. They have an able, articulate cast -- almost too articulate. At times A Serious Man comes across like filmed theater, or even a radio play. I'm not saying that the film ever becomes uncinematic -- that'd be impossible for the brothers -- but it often comes out highly mannered, though I think it was meant that way. If the screenplay has a real weakness, it's in the concept of the main character. Larry seems like such a hapless nebbish that you're left wondering how he won a wife and achieved a career in the first place. But at least he has a grotesquely dysfunctional brother to make him look relatively normal. I don't know if it's the Coens' fault or Michael Stuhlbarg's if I find Larry somewhat unconvincing. I can't recall seeing the actor in any other role, so I don't know if he's overdoing the wimpiness or faithfully carrying out a flawed concept.

But because the story is really bigger than Larry, my problems with the character don't really damage my estimate of the film, which is that the Coens are still on their current winning streak (from No Country For Old Men forward) after an early-decade slump. I'll need to see it again a few times before I try to rank it in their overall filmography, but I think I'd agree with the Academy and place it among the ten best American films of 2009.

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