30 March 2010

A Serious Man


Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Wagner Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff, Written, Produced, and Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Release: 02 October 2009
Features, 106 mins., Rated R

Plot: Larry Gopnik is a religious man, teaches physics at college, and is a family man; by the film's conclusion, his life's a shithole.

The Coen Brothers. Ah, they make interesting bits of cinema, don't they? In 2009, they debuted A Serious Man, a work that they've been quoted to call their most 'personal' production to date. The funny thing with this picture is that a lot of critics don't really get it, or can't relate to it because of its large amount of Jewish overtones, and here I am - a not-so-lover of the Brothers Coen - and I quite like it. Plus, I don't know squat of Jewish tradition, but this is the type of movie that doesn't require you to. In fact, it's a film that any person of any faith can relate to.

Larry Gopnik and his family attend church regularly, although his family doesn't really seem to be following the church guidelines. The young adults of the house swear excessively, care only about their friends and what's on TV, and the whole religious part of their lives isn't exactly high on the priority list; especially with Larry's son, Danny (Wolf), where his commitments to the church is secondary to his lifestyle. It's either something he does to appease his parents, or he just doesn't care. The film doesn't spend enough time with the daughter, Sarah (McManus), to get a real feel for her character, although it's apparent her primary concerns is friend time.

With his kids well immersed in pedestrian problems of their own, one would think Larry's wife Judith (Lennick) would be right there to support him. Instead, she reveals, in a comically straight-forward manner, that she's been having a affair with Sly Ableman (Melamed). Larry appears to be the only one trying desperately to make the right choices, and every single time he tries to do right, he's hit with some new crappy turn of event - a car accident, cheating wife/divorce, a supposed 'bribe' with a student, money problems, employment complications...

And yet through it all, Larry tries to maintain professionalism and cool-headedness. Perhaps to his detriment, Larry is quite the passive individual, allowing himself to be pushed into corners, and hardly steps up for himself. I'm sure he finds this quality of his to be a just one - no action but kindness, that sort of thing. Eventually, as one new bad thing after another piles on top of him, the film features Larry near a cracking point. He even consults three rabbis, with none of them giving anything remotely sounding like a answer, and he's knee-deep in desperation.

The great part about A Serious Man is just how damn comedic these situations are. Everything is played in a 100% straight manner, nothing set-up like a punch line, and it's the seriousness of the situations and the 'holy crap, really dude, that just happened?' moments that create a LOL factor. Think Burn After Reading: how the whole thing escalates to preposterous heights it ends up being blissfully hilarious. The same applies here. A particularly funny sequence involves the father or attorney of Clive, a student who asks Larry for a passing grade but Larry doesn't consent and ends up leaving a envelope with money in it, and tries to explain the 'culture clash' and the bribery that has just taken place, much to Larry's disbelief. Another quite humorous scene is when Larry, Judtih and Sly Ableman sit in a restaurant to discuss 'living arrangements.' Major kudos to the script and actor Fred Melamed.

A large part of peoples distaste for A Serious Man is the highly 'ambiguous ending'. I, personally, think it's brilliant. Just the right conclusion for this type of story. And it's sort of ironic for me that I dig this finale (which most dislike) and absolutely hate No Country for Old Men's conclusion (which receives plenty of giddy analysis). I absolutely love those final shots of Larry in his office, staring straight at his list of students and their respective grades, internally fighting a moral war as to what he should do. And then the phone call, and then the stuff at Danny's school, complimented by some nice music selection - it all comes together to make a fantastic finale that stays true to what happened before, and it's 'ambiguous' for the sake of being artsy or what have you. The movie presents this religious man facing moral and life-changing complications, and concludes on the note of, so what is this man going to do? A new storm of crap is headed his way, so how is he going to handle it? What will be his response, his answer, so to speak?

Honestly, for me, the ending put a large majority of the picture into perspective. The film wanders into multiple plotlines and subplots, and the finale sort of ties it all together...in a way...

The performances that grace the screen here are nothing short of awesome. My favorite character has got to be Sly Ableman, played to utter perfection by Fred Melamed with his cool, reasoning, logical voice, given fantastic dialogue by the Coens. Michael Stuhlberg (Cold Souls) is equally awesome as the main protagonist Larry, and brings this well written character to life so splendidly. He portrays a man who wants to do the right thing, and he wants to be a good, serious person, even in the midst of all these ginormous, gargantuan problems. Stuhlberg also does a fantastic job showing the progression of Larry's mentality - for the first 40 minutes, he's trying to stay on control, near the middle section he's sort of losing it, and by the last stretch home, he's become a little frazzled. Their co-stars are just fine, although I could have done with replacements for Larry and Judith's teenage children.

Believe me, a good review for A Serious Man surprises none other than me, a bloke who doesn't really like Coen films (with the exception of Burn After Reading). The movie is a great character piece; a nearly two hour documentary of a man's life turning upside down. I don't really know if there is a 'point' per se, if you're supposed to walk away from the movie with some grand message or philosophical outlook, but I enjoyed it. I liked it. I appreciate the movie the Coens set out to make, and I appreciate they made it their way without some sort of studio intervention which woulda saw the family fight extraterrestrials who moved onto their street or something like that.

Oh! One last thing before I conclude this - the first 10 minutes were awesome! Spooky, chilly, wonderfully scripted and shot (in full frame, no less), I would nearly recommend the entire movie just for that. I'm not sure I quite get the total relevance of it in regards to Larry's story, but it's freakishly cool, nonetheless. In the bonus features, the Coens analogize it to those short cartoons that preceded a feature film, like a Mickey Mouse production or what have you.

In conclusion, I liked A Serious Man, and I recommend. May not be for everyone, but take a few hours or - heck, even a day - to think about it, there's a lot to love.

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