Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Serious Man

Despite what are really quite excellent production aspects - and what might well be a backhanded smack at the god of the Bible’s Old Testament - I did not get the overarching feeling that this was a particuarly likable movie. It is very well made - there can be little doubt that Joel and Ethan Coen are among the finest filmmakers working today - but the main problem is that it’s almost impossible to form any kind of emotional attachment to any of the characters. The writers of the Bible (especially of the Old Testament), whomever they might have been, were not encumbered by the need to reach their audience; they were penning a cautionary tale, almost as a parent admonishes a child without offering a sufficient explanation for some proscribed behavior or required task: “It’s not for you to like. It’s for you to do.”

Well...okay. But the Bible is not offered as an entertainment; it’s an instruction book of sorts - for those who seek admittance to the clubhouse - and it stands on a foundation of blind faith. It pretty much has to be blind, right? It is difficult to imagine anyone who could read the Old Testament and think, “Man, I like where God is going with this.” Indeed, if the Old Testament were stripped of its religious overtones and presented as a secular document - a political platform, say - the candidate would have no chance. “It’s not for you to like. It’s for you to do.”

On the other hand, no one - other than maybe Frances McDormand - is going to be thrown into the fiery furnace if they don’t go out and see this movie. Joel and Ethan Coen have reached that rarified place in American cinema where they can make pretty much whatever movie they want, in whatever way they want, and have that movie rushed into production and released by any one of half a dozen or so (surviving) indie arms of the major studios; and people will go to see these movies because past experience dictates that, by and large, films by the Coens range anywhere from very good (Burn After Reading, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to exceptional (No Country for Old Men). There are exceptions, of course (rumor has it that Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers were nigh on unwatchable - especially if you believe all of the little old ladies who wanted refunds on the latter because of all the F-bombs) - but the exceptions here only prove the rule, that Joel and Ethan Coen are filmmakers of the highest order.

Which makes A Serious Man not a little frustrating. It’s an excellent film - but I’m pretty sure that I don’t ever want to watch it again. The art direction fuses 1950s cultural sensibilities with late-1960s kitsch so well that it’s almost like a new decade has been born; and if not for the repeating pulsations of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” you might well think you’ve slipped into some kind of Seuss-ian fantasy land beyond Thunderdome. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is in a complete comfort zone with the Coens, and his compositions really let a lot of scenes breathe and take on a life of their own - even if some of those compositions are a little too angular and fancy. And the actors, as is so often the case in films by the Coens, fully inhabit their roles; as a bonus, they also disappear into those roles here, as there are no name actors in the film. Leaving aside No Country for Old Men, the name actors in Coen brothers movies almost never disappear into their roles; instead, they inhabit those roles, and rather than seeing a combination of actor and character that creates something new, you see a known face creating a caricature of a ridiculous person who would not be at all interesting if not juxtaposed to a famous face.

That might have something to do with why I couldn’t get behind Larry Gopnik, the protagonist (uh, kinda) in A Serious Man. Michael Stuhlbarg, whose previous work includes a lot of things I have not seen and one picture I’m interested in seeing when it works its way onto video (Cold Souls), plays Gopnik; and he both inhabits and disappears into the role - a guy who has been oblivious to the little things in his marriage that have added up to his wife’s (seemingly) sudden request for a divorce - and in a way he manages to come off like a Coen character we’re used to seeing, but there is much about the character that is forced, including Stuhlbarg’s delivery and his situation in many of the scenes. I haven’t seen Stuhlbarg in anything else, though, so I can’t say for sure that it’s his performance that causes the sort of herky-jerky progression - but it would not surprise me if this were the case.

Gopnik is criticized by his wife’s new lover as not being a serious man, which seems to be a way of saying that Gopnik has not done enough with his life. He continuously protests - particularly to his wife, concerning her reasons for wanting a divorce - that he hasn’t done anything; and what he’s saying in the empty space of that statement is that he hasn’t done anything except what has been expected of him in his life. He’s a modern day Job, persecuted constantly for reasons of which he cannot conceive; but Job is comforted, to an extent, by his faith in his god. Gopnik, though Jewish - and the picture as a whole is not so much steeped in Judaism as it is positively drowning in it - pays only lip service to faith; and his attempts to receive counsel from the religious leaders in his life are rebuffed at every turn, which echoes the way God seems to ignore Job in the Bible.

But there is no sense of hope here, none of the reassurance readers of the Bible get that Job will one day find peace though he suffers constantly throughout his life. I’m sure the film's dearth of hope is by design; and as an overall criticism of religion - particularly of the god of the Old Testament - it’s effective. The suffering that Gopnik endures - being cuckolded, having redneck neighbors on one side and a wily temptress on the other, being strung along about getting tenure at work, boarding a brother who can’t seem to catch a break - is shown as ridiculous, as are his rabbis, a series of whom are recommended to him for counsel; and though all the roles are pulled off pretty well, especially Fred Melamed as Gopnik’s wife’s new lover, there’s not really a single character in the movie that you find yourself wanting to root for. And that’s too bad, because the space these characters inhabit is so well-constructed and expertly presented that it fairly begs to be lived in by people whose fates demand to be cared about.

I’m sure there’s probably some Big Theme here that I’m just missing - and that would make the picture open itself up to me way more than it did; and maybe a second viewing would bring more of that theme to the front of my mind, but I don’t know how long it might be before I ever watch this one again. I’ll tell you, though - there’s a scene toward the end where the cops come to arrets Gopnik’s brother; and if one of those cops had been John C. Reilly reprising his role as police office Jim Kurring, it might have made the movie a whole lot more interesting.

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