Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Film review: A Serious Man

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed
Country: Coensville, USA
Year: 2009

When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies... Rabbi Marshak

There ought to be a support group for characters of Coen brother’s movie, so tormented are the lives and experiences of such an existence. After the Oscar-winning success of their last masterpiece No Country For Old Men the filmmakers turned their sights to the farcical with Burn After Reading, a film about greed and the self-absorbed. With their latest effort, A Serious Man, the Coens turn their deadpan absurdity levels to 11 for latest victim Larry Gopnik (Michael Struhlbarg), a married, physics teacher with a couple of kids in a Jewish enclave of 1967 suburban Minnesota; a man to whom Very Bad Things are about to happen.

The irony is not lost in the film’s title, nor is it within all that occurs. Life, the Coen’s would have us believe, is a force of natural too unpredictable to be taken seriously no matter how hard we try and no matter whatever certainty we may think exists. Gopnik is a man to whom the status quo is religion in a world where God might just be too cruel a force to allow such malaise to go unchecked.

For Gopnik things start out bad and get progressively worse, and worse, and worse. First his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces she is leaving him for his recently widowed pompous pal Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his redneck neighbour appears combustible while his deadbeat brother has taken up residence in his living room when not frequently bars of dubious moral. Add to this a son newly acquainted with the teenage harlot Mary Jane, a daughter stealing money for a nose job, a tenure committee meeting to decide his job while someone writes anonymous letters slandering him and a failing Korean student who simultaneously brides him and threatens to sue him. So it is at the behest of his lawyer that Gopnik turns to religion for counsel.

Strange it has taken the Coens so long to turn the focus of their dark sense of humour so squarely on their Jewish roots for material, making up for lost time the brothers consciously run riot. As Gopnik seeks the advice of one Rabbi and then another, he discovers little more than abstract fables that provide little in the way of answers and more in the way of questions. God, if he exists, might not be a cruel master so much as he is an ambivalent one with a surreal sense of humour.

Fatalism becomes all prevailing, providing further evidence that when it comes to the human condition there are few storytellers with a keener, darker eye than the Coens. Funny though it might be, A Serious Man is a resolutely uncomfortable experience and deserving of a place amidst Joel and Ethan’s finest work.