Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: A Serious Man (2009)

A Serious Man (2009)
Directed by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg (Larry Gopnik), Richard Kind (Uncle Arthur), Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman), Sari Lennick (Judith Gopnik), Aaron Wolff (Danny Gopnik), Jessica McManus (Sarah Gopnik), David Kang (Clive Park),  Alan Mandell (Rabbi Marshak), Amy Landecker (Mrs. Samsky), George Wyner (Rabbi Nachtner), Steve Park (Clive's Father), Allen Lewis Rickman (Shtetl Husband), Yelena Shmulenson  (Shtetl Wife), Fyvush Finkel (Dybbuk?), Raye Birk (Dr. Shapiro), Simon Helberg (Rabbi Scott), Adam Arkin (Divorce Lawyer), Warren Keith (Dick Dutton).

I cannot help but think that in some ways, A Serious Man is a film the Coen brothers made in response to some of their detractors. As more than one critic at the time pointed out, A Serious Man is the type of film you get to make only after you’ve won an Oscar. That’s when, if you’re smart, you try and get a long gestating passion project made. Although between A Serious Man and their Oscar winning No Country for Old Men, the Coens made Burn After Reading – that was a film with two of the biggest movie stars in the world, and it debuted just months after the Oscars – meaning it was already well into production when they won. A Serious Man on the other hand has no movie stars, is set almost entirely in the Jewish Community in Minnesota of the 1960s – when the brothers were growing up – and is a painfully funny modern day reworking of the Book of Job – Job being the man that God punished basically because God made a bet with Satan that he could punish Job and he still wouldn’t lose his faith. The old (and tired) criticism of the Coens has always been that they hate and mock their characters – that like some cruel, detached Gods above them they toy with and punish their characters for their own personal amusement. It’s a line I’ve never believed – as I have quoted from The Dissolve more than once during this series, I think the Coens “love their sinners, but don’t let them get away with their sins”. Their characters, from Blood Simple to Burn After Reading (and beyond, in True Grit and Inside Llewyn Davis) bring the wrath that befalls them on themselves. The same is not true for Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg) – who is punished in many ways even more severely than other Coen characters and for sins he has not (yet) committed. It’s almost as if the Coens are responding to two old criticisms of them – that they are impersonal, by setting movie in the time and place of their youth, and that they are cruel Gods mocking and punishing their characters for no reason, by doing exactly that – but blowing it up to more epic proportions. In doing so, I think the Coens have made one of their masterpieces.

When the movie opens, Larry Gopnik is a mainly happy physics professor – married, with two kids and about to get tenure. That he teaches physics is no coincidence – physics attempts to explain the mysteries of the universe using mathematics, and Larry is about to be faced with a series of problems that no math can explain. A friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), wants to get in contact with him so they can have a “good talk” – about what he has no idea, until his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) gets infuriated with him for not talking to Sy. According to her, they both know that things between them have not been right for a while. It’s time to get a divorce, so she can marry Sy. But poor Larry knew no such thing – he’s blindsided by this revelation. And when he finally does talk to Sy, it’s impossible to get mad at him, because Sy is so even keeled, has such a reassuring voice – and is able to say practically anything and make it seem like you’d be a complete asshole to disagree with him. His career is also in jeopardy – a Korean student, unhappy with a failing grade, has tried to bribe Larry into passing him – Larry doesn’t want the money, but he’s almost stuck with it. And someone has been writing the tenure committee about his “moral turpitude”. His kids don’t seem to care about him – his son just wants him to fix the TV so he can watch F-Troop, his daughter just wants Uncle Arthur out of the bathroom so she can wash her hair. And Arthur is in the bathroom a lot, because he has to drain a cyst. He is incapable of holding onto a job, but he has some large scheme, writing in either incomprehensible gibberish, or absolute genius, in a series of notebooks that allows him to win at gambling – before the police show up for that, and more serious crimes. And that’s just the start of Larry’s problems.

In response to this crisis, Larry goes to see one rabbi after another – starting with the youngest (Simon Helberg), who offers no concrete advice, but advises him to see Hashem all around him – I mean, just look at the parking lot! Rabbi Natchter tells Larry a long story – almost a short film in itself – about a dentist who finds Hebrew words written in a goy’s teeth. Larry wants to know the point of the story – “We can’t know everything” the rabbi tells him. Larry wants to see the oldest rabbi – even goes to see him and after explaining his situation to his secretary, sees her go back to see the old rabbi sitting still behind his desk, only to be informed that he cannot see Larry because he’s too busy. “He doesn’t look busy” Larry says. “He’s thinking” is the response het gets.

Larry spends the movie searching for an answer as to why he’s being punished – and never gets one. Everyone else in the movie seems to know he’s doomed – everyone seems to regard him with sympathy, not anger. Perhaps he’s being punished because an ancestor allowed a Dybbuk into his house, as we see in the film’s opening scene. Or perhaps it’s something else entirely. The ending of the movie certainly suggests that some force is testing Larry – seeing how far he can be pushed before he breaks. The moment Larry does indeed break – and commits his first real sin in the movie – is when Larry’s problems really start – an ominous phone call from his doctor, and a final shot that suggests that Larry was being tested on behalf of us all.

As Larry, Michael Stuhlberg delivers a great performance. It would have been easy to portray Larry as a pathetic loser or a Woody Allen-style neurotic, but Stuhlberg and the Coens do not do that. Larry is a good man - one who is striving to do the right thing, and just wants answers to the undeniable truth that he is being punished for what appears to be no reason. That everyone is so damned polite to him is infuriating and he tries to hold everything together until finally, he just cannot do it anymore. He is surrounded by a cast of actors that I mainly had never seen before – but all of whom seem perfect for their roles. The film is stylistic, but more grounded in reality than many Coen films have been. They are interested in recreating the world as they knew it in the 1960s, and they don’t go for exaggerated effect in the film. The film is quite funny – but not in the overtly comic way other Coen films have been. This is a film whose comedy comes from a painful place – you laugh, or at least smile, because the alternative is too painful. This is a comedy that makes you wince.

How anyone could watch A Serious Man and accuse the Coens of having no sympathy for Larry – for simply being cruel Gods toying with the character for their own amusement is beyond me. Larry is the most wholly sympathetic protagonist in the Coens filmography. Even that doesn’t ultimately save Larry. Someone really has it in for poor Larry.

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