Thursday, February 18, 2010

Film Review - A Serious Man

Film #22 of 2010 - A Serious Man
The Coen brothers love to tell stories about journeys, usually helmed by hapless women and men. Sometimes their journey is tragic, and other times, their journey is tragicomic. (They are never quite completely harmless!) The latest film co-written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man, follows this formula, with a religious twist.

A Serious Man stars relative newcomer (unless you count his role as “Young Hassid” in A Price Above Rubies as his breakthrough role) Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a physics professor and patriarch of a Jewish family that consists of his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) who is leaving him for a family friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his pothead son Danny (Aaron Wolff) who splits his free time eluding a classmate to whom he owes money, and studying up for his upcoming bar mitzvah, daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) who is a typical self-absorbed teen obsessed with her hair, and finally, Larry’s brother Arthur, (Richard Kind) who is certifiably insane and doesn’t do much more than hide behind doors and take up space. The film begins with a scene between Gopnik’s ancestors which sets up the theme that the Gopnik family is cursed through the generations, and that Larry in particular is a modern day (well, 1960’s) version of Job in that the bad news, while none of it life threatening or earth shattering, maybe, (no spoilers in this review!) just keeps coming and he is continually tested.

There is a particular style to Coen brothers’ films, and while that style can vary among their films, it is almost always identifiable as theirs. Millers Crossing, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men were smooth and sleek, filmed in warm tones despite the setting. Then there is another style that falls into what I call the “colorful” category (as non-scientific and non-descriptive as that really is) where everything is filmed in primary colors, and almost garish at times; yellows are really yellow (think Frances McDormand’s shirt in Burn After Reading) and the mood is intensified by the setting, like The Ladykillers. A Serious Man is the latest addition to the latter category, and I think it really adds to the comedic spirit of the film. The darkly tanned, leather-skinned neighbor who Larry fantasizes about wears loudly colored clothing and makeup that is just as loud, and one can’t help but either cringe or laugh when she’s on the screen. Even scenes between Larry and whichever Rabbi he’s consulting with have a spark, albeit subtle, because of the photography. Roger Deakins, arguably one of the best cinematographers of all time, and certainly the greatest working today, is a long time collaborator of the Coen brothers, and his work, both fluid and beautiful (even in the face of ridiculousness at times) was a huge asset to the film. It may just be because I’m a film nerd (and in particular, a cinematography nerd because that’s what I was most interested in when I went to film school), but it’s apparent to me when the Coen brothers do not release a film with Deakins behind the camera, because that element just pushes the film a little higher on the “great” scale.

Another strong point in most Coen brothers’ films is the story, whether original or adapted, and A Serious Man, an original screenplay written by the Coens is magnificent. Their treatment of poor, put upon Larry is reminiscent of watching a lone sock tumble around in a dryer: they just keep bouncing him around from one bad situation to the next, and confront him with more problems, but there is so much subtlety alongside the outright belly laughs that sometimes I found myself wondering why I was laughing exactly. It could be the use of a word, or in many cases, it was the outstanding performances by most of the cast, Stuhlbarg in particular. Though I’ve never seen him before in anything that I can think of, (though after checking out his filmography on IMDB I can only assume that I caught him on a rerun of Law & Order at some point!) he fit right into the Coen brothers’ cache so well that there was almost a familiarity about him not long after the film began. Whether he was silent, with a bewildered look, or at the end of his rope and screaming on the phone at the Columbia House debt collector who always seems to call at the wrong time (which, unfortunately for Larry, is all the time) Stuhlbarg was tailor-made for this part and really could have been a contender for an Oscar for acting. (I’m looking at you, Morgan Freeman - relinquish your spot!) The weakest element of the film was most certainly the role of Larry’s brother Arthur, who was not well fleshed out (we only saw glimpses of his craziness and eccentricities, which served as some comedic fodder but not enough) and kind of a waste of Richard Kind’s talent. I realize that he was partially there simply to be yet another burden for Larry to bear, but the whole Arthur concept was simply half cooked. I would also recommend that anyone who is not familiar with the Jewish faith and culture, and is seeing this film on DVD check out the short special feature that explains some of the Hebrew and Yiddish terms. Hell, even if you do get them, check it out because it’s hilariously presented.

A Serious Man starts with, for lack of a better word, a fable, and ends with a lot of uncertainty, as a lot of the Coen brothers’ films do, to great effect. When the film ended, I had a huge grin on my face, and the first thing I said to my companions was, “I have no idea why right now, but I loved it!” That’s one of the many things I love about their films in general: there is always an initial positive reaction, then all of the elements of the film kind of sink into my brain and my pores, where I can finally articulate what I liked and didn’t. As with many of their films in general, there’s exponentially more “like” than “didn’t”, and A Serious Man is no exception. There’s a reason that a new Coen brothers’ film is an event with my friends and I: the unmitigated nachas they bestow.

Four stars out of five

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