October 2, 2009

A Serious Man (10/02/09)

Lettergrade: B+

A running motif in Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man is the long winded morality tale that ultimately has a puzzling, unclear meaning. In fact, that's kind of what the film itself is too. Although the dark blend of comedy and tragedy set in 1967 Minnesota is extremely entertaining, I'm not sure I've got much more than a long-shot suspicion about what, if anything, I'm supposed to take from it.

The movie centers around Larry Gopnik, a meek math professor who's life begins to unravel a few weeks before his son is to be bar mitzvahed. His wife announces that she's leaving him for another man, his brother (played by character actor Richard Kind - one of the few actors in the picture, along with Coen alum Michael Lerner and Spaceballs' George Wyner - that I actually recognized) has been living on their TV room sofa for months with no signs of departing, and a failed bribery scheme by one of Larry's disgruntled students is threatening his tenure.

Larry's response to much of this is pure inaction, a running theme in several Coen movies, but particularly reminiscent of Billy Bob Thorton's character in The Man Who Wasn't There. The morality tale motif pops up often throughout the picture as Larry tries to make sense of life's many turns of fortune, and what, if anything, God has in mind for us. He seeks the advice of all three Rabbis at his temple, but gets little more than complex metaphors that don't seem particularly enlightening.

Special attention in the film is given to Larry's son Danny, who is about the same age in '67 as Joel Coen would have been. He's not quite the main character, and the Coens claim that very little about the film is biographical, apart from its setting, but nevertheless his scenes preparing for the bar mitzvah, bored out of his mind in shuhl, and smoking dope with his friends seem to make up the driving center of the movie. Many a filmmaker, from Martin Scorsese to George Lucas to Rob Reiner, gets around to making a picture that captures the texture of their youth at some point, and this might be as close as the Coens will get.

As it's a Coen movie, the film is populated with a wide array of bizarre characters and odd looking people with deep eccentricities. The picture is impeccably well shot and has particularly amazing sound design, even by their standards.

A large point of controversy will likely be the film's conclusion, which rivals No Country For Old Men in terms of its abruptness and lack of closure. I must admit that I don't really find it all that satisfying myself. Would I have liked an ending that offered a bit more of a clue as to what the last two hours were supposed to add up to? Sure. An odd thing about Coen movies, though, is that even when they're a little antagonizing and difficult to access, as I found The Big Lebowski in particular to be when it was first released, I wouldn't trade the pleasure that I often have in watching them, and in watching them again.

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