A Serious Man

Post date: Dec 31, 2009 1:25:28 AM

The Coen Brothers' latest film, A Serious Man (about a Midwestern Jewish professor facing his mid-life crisis in the 1960s), is a divisive one. Some viewers and critics (JC, from the JC & The U-Man morning show formerly on KHITS 96; Joe Morgenstern from the Wall Street Journal; Christopher Orr from the New Republic) view it as an odd, pointless, and bleak venture into banality. But others (me included) see it as a triumph -- definitely one of the top five films of 2009. I don't have a definitive, numbered ranking for my favorites of this year, and have little desire to make one, but Inglorious Basterds and Precious (to be reviewed next) are up there, too. The story skips from incident to unrelenting incident that unravel the fragile life of Larry Gopnik (a convincingly neurotic Michael Stuhlbarg). Completely to his surprise, his wife announces one day that she plans to leave him for another man. She feels no guilt, and Larry's only consolation comes from the "other man" himself: Sy Ableman, a kind of pre-Dr. Phil figure who uses the soothing -- yet meaningless -- words of self-help mumbo-jumbo philosophy to avoid conflict with Larry. Fred Melamed's portrayal of Sy will have you writhing in anger; his smugness highlights Stuhlbarg's helplessness even more. Meanwhile, Larry's son steals money from his parents to buy weed; his clean-cut, WASPy neighbors the Brandts (no relation) glare at him from their front yard, seemingly just for existing; a foreign student in his Physics class tries to pay for a higher grade with bribe money; his brother spends most of his time lounging on Larry's living room couch, suctioning pus out of his sebaceous cyst with a machine. The attorneys he hires and the rabbis he consults offer him empty advice. He has nowhere to turn . . . except to the dreams and fantasies he uses for comfort and escape, but that the Coens ultimately crush with tragedy.

From scene to scene, trouble assaults Larry from all corners. He's such a pushover, and you have to pity him . . . But at the same time, the Coens' style of execution, their ability to ratchet the stakes, the tension, and the WTF-factor, makes for laughs. That is their way. And that's one of many reasons it's a shame this film did not receive a wider, longer release. If anyone understands the close link between comedy and tragedy, it's them. Think back to Fargo. When Steve Buscemi's remains shoot out a wood mulcher, it's disturbing, but also so sudden and bizarre that you have to laugh. And in Blood Simple, you have such a complicated series of misunderstandings and unnecessary violence that you chuckle to relieve the tension of your guts being wrenched.

With its pungent blend of oddity and realism, A Serious Man goes even more boldly into the abyss, the realm of absurdity in which Joel and Ethan Coen have firmly established themselves as kings.

On unrelated notes . . .

    • Happy belated birthday to this website. JTBrandt.com was founded around this time last year, between Christmas and New Year's. Hard to believe how much it has changed since then. I've collected a college career's worth of content and added this blog. Hopefully a stronger viewership will come along in the second year.
    • I officially missed Hurt Locker, which will make my Top 5 or Top 10 or however-many-movies-of-the-year list of mine incomplete. Fortunately, it will hit store shelves on DVD and Blu-Ray on January 12 and will definitely land a high spot on my DVD queue once I finally subscribe to Netflix again.
    • I am pretty sure I'm catching Up in the Air later tonight. Not 100% on that, but if I do, you'll see a review on it two posts from now. The next being Precious.
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