Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Serious Masterpiece: A SERIOUS MAN

“When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies, then what?”

When I sat down to write about A Serious Man, the latest Coen brothers’ film, I ended up getting carried away and writing well over a thousand words on some of their earlier films and that was just initially my introduction. At some point in the future, I should recycle that writing into a more comprehensive retrospective of their career. For now I think it’s only important to note that I was reflecting on their past achievements mostly because this film feels in many ways like the film they’ve been inevitably building towards, an important landmark of their artistic progression that feels both incredibly personal and yet emotionally restrained. With A Serious Man, the Coens have taken their finely honed skills and have further perfected their mastery of the art of filmmaking. It is a staggering work of absolute perfection. In this film every shot, every word, is absolutely integral. There are no wasted moments to be found. The Coens have complete control over every aspect of the experience and use that control to create a generously thoughtful and tremendously affecting experience, while also containing a seemingly limitless ability to surprise.

One of the major reasons the film feels like the perfect apotheosis of the Coens’ style is how wholly personal it feels. Following a middle-class Jewish family in suburban Minnesota during 1970, it is firmly entrenched in the milieu of the Coens’ childhood. And yet, this isn’t exactly autobiographical. The story focuses on Larry Gopnik, a professor at small college whose upcoming tenure hearing is just one good reason for him to be stressed out. His wife wants to divorce him. His bosses have been receiving anonymous notes denigrating him. He has a student who tries to bribe him. His son’s bar mitzvah is fast approaching. His brother has to move in with them while he looks for work and drains a massive cyst on the back of his neck. Their TV antenna is unreliable. He can’t make an appointment with the rabbi, the one thing that he hopes might help him understand his plight. This movie has been called an updated telling of the Biblical story of Job, but that’s only partially true. The story of Job is a story of a man whose faith in God remains steadfast as his life goes from bad to worse to excruciating. Larry Gopnik’s story, while following a superficially similar structure, is one of searching, about how hard it is to maintain faith or come to a greater understanding of your faith, when absolutely everything is going wrong.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Gopnik in the performance of the year. On the surface, it’s a very reactionary role, a role that requires little more than receiving bad news and letting it settle in. Yet that’s not quite the part, and Stuhlbarg knows it. He plays the scenes with a subtlety and a soft dark humor that’s both realistic and stylized, caught in the perfect Coen pitch of character and tone. This is an immensely likable character, even as he gets more and more frustrated with his life. “But I didn’t do anything!” becomes a common refrain as the next horrible event happens, as if his passive nature should insulate him from the world. And yet, this never becomes pathetic or grating. This is a compassionate performance and it evokes powerful emotion and wicked laughs. I never felt like they were laughs of derision, though. This movie’s humor comes twofold: humor from writing that’s simply witty or unexpected and dark nervous chortles of disbelief as things go even further downhill. The Coens have us laugh so we don’t cry.

It seems wholly inadequate to merely examine in just several hundred words the achievement of this film. In a perfect world this piece would be many thousands of words long, touch upon theology, philosophy, and physics, and contain dozens and dozens of stills from the film, but even that would pale in comparison to the experience I had watching the film. In 2009, A Serious Man and Inglourious Basterds were the only two films that felt fully and totally memorable from the opening moments through the end credits. Each moment is a total gem of filmmaking, each line feels quotable. But this is not just formally exceptional, well written artistry that goes no further. (Basterds wasn’t either). This film has a deep resonating core of emotion, a wonderful sense of humanity. I see no trace of the misanthropy that some of the harshest critics of this and other Coen films like to point out. This is a deeply humanistic film. It presents as its protagonist a man who is having a very hard time, but while the Cones examine suffering and allow dark humor to shine through, the way they hold the camera in sympathetic close ups and allow his reactions to subtly and slowly play out across his face created in me a deep empathy. This is not a cruel film, but an exhilarating one, like in the moment where Gopnik stands atop his house, staring across the endless suburban space sprawled out below him. For one small moment, he is on top of the world.

The supporting cast is typically Coen, filled with character actors and entirely perfect. There’s Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman, a man who seems to have his life together and is thus the object of simultaneous jealousy and derision by Gopnik. Melamed has a morosely comic way of seeming to condescendingly sigh his lines. Sari Lennick, as Mrs. Gopnik, creates a monstrously comedic portrait of a woman whose scarily composed unraveling threatens a similar fate for her family. Richard Kind, as the brother, gives a shattering, yet bleakly funny, performance of a broken man, serving to show Gopnik how much worse things could be.

Other characters, including rabbis, lawyers, college faculty members, and neighbors both beguiling and menacing float in and out of the plot as the Coens work from their perfectly structured script with a tight sense of pacing. Everything associated with a Coen brothers film is in its finest form here. There’s excellent, subtle and beautiful cinematography from Roger Deakins, a darkly swirling score from Carter Burwell, and amazingly precise editing from Roderick Jaynes (though I suspect that he received a lot of help from the Coens, as he usually does). There are instantly memorable characters delivering wonderfully written dialogue matched with a plot that continually tightens the screws, pulling the movie tighter and tauter. The Coens have always known that nervous tension and dark comedy can often come from the same place. They use that knowledge here as well as, and in some ways better than, they ever have.

But above all, this is a haunting character study. Larry Gopnik is as great a character as the movies have ever given us, in a movie that knows just how to use him. This is a wonderfully thoughtful movie, honestly engaging with notions of belief and disbelief, tradition and modernity, meaning and meaninglessness. And yet, despite being, at times, a bleak existentialist cry, the film allows there to be nobility in searching for answers, as Gopnik continually pleads for understanding, searching for meaning in meetings with Rabbis and in the equations coating his chalkboard. In one great moment, we cut away from his piece of chalk scraping out small numerals to see the board coated with equations, dwarfing him, dominating one wall of his classroom, as we hear him say “this proves that we can never really know anything.”

Despite having seen the film three times in the theaters and eagerly awaiting the moment when I can put my Blu-ray copy in for a spin, what I envy most is the experience of seeing it for the first time, reveling in the perfection as it unspools. And yet, the movie does come close to replicating that sense of discovering within me, even as each viewing brings new and varied interpretations, and deeper understandings, and intriguing connections. Some may find A Serious Man open-ended, vague, pointless, or unsatisfactory, but that’s their loss. They would deny themselves the rich images, the absorbing dialogue of the newest, and maybe greatest, Coen masterpiece. They need to accept the mystery to find this film as eminently habitable as it truly is. This is a film that held me gripped from frame one all the way through the end credits, the kind of film that leaves me breathless, pinned to my seat through the credits until I’m staring at a blank screen, turning the experience over and over in my head while desiring to see it again as soon as possible.

Note: Three events occur in the first third of the film that are vital clues to fuel the mind when thinking about the movie’s implications. When you watch it the second time, pay attention to the opening parable. Is he a Dybbuck or not? Does it matter? Pay attention to Gopnik’s explanation of Schrodinger’s Cat. Pay attention to this exchange Gopnik has with a student:
“Actions have consequences.”
“No, always!”

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