Serious Man, AReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/14/09 08:16:33
Joel and Ethan Coen have always been predictable in their unpredictability. They followed their bleak Oscar-winning drama "No Country for Old Men" with the star-studded goof "Burn After Reading," and now they have made "A Serious Man," an unclassifiable, vaguely apocalyptic tragedy-farce with hardly any name actors.The film’s closest antecedent in the Coen portfolio is probably 1991’s Barton Fink, another bizarre, deadpan-surreal account of the nightmares of a hapless, bespectacled Jew. This time, though, the Jewishness is right out front — the movie is about man’s insufficient understanding of the unknowable God. “Accept the mystery,” advises one character.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Minnesotan physics teacher circa 1967, seems to have taken on the modern version of the suffering of Job. His wife is dumping him for another man (and kicking him out of the house); his teenage kids are obnoxious; his brother (Richard Kind) sits around working on some incomprehensible mathematical theory when he’s not draining his sebaceous cyst. (My first thought: pus was also a motif in Barton Fink. My second thought: only in the Coens’ work would pus be a motif.) Larry wonders why all this is happening to him. His (and others’) agonized refrain is “I haven’t done anything.” Visits to various rabbis bring no relief. Neither does a brief, fruitless flirtation with a next-door neighbor who sunbathes nude and offers iced tea, pot, and maybe herself.
The title is, naturally, ironic. The slick old man who’s cuckolding Larry is referred to as a serious man, and Larry says he’s tried to be one. But truly, nobody can be serious in such a capricious universe as the one the Coens present. The atmosphere and milieu — the bland furnishings, the usual razor-sharp sound design and immaculate photography by Roger Deakins — are gracefully evoked. Even here, in their mystical-obscure mode, the Coens work cleanly and rigorously. The cast, mostly unknown to moviegoers, blends into the slightly heightened reality. We get a sense of fragile order barely holding off disaster. Sometimes, like Barton Fink, the style is like nothing so much as a high-toned intellectual horror movie.
The prologue sets the tone: an old Jewish fable (made up by the Coens) involving a dead man, or dybbuk, who comes calling one snowy night. It has nothing to do with the rest of the film, but thematically it prepares us for the uncanny. Later, a rabbi tells the supposedly true story of a dentist who discovered “Help me” engraved in Hebrew on the back of a patient’s teeth. Larry briefly takes that admonition to heart, for all the good that does him. In A Serious Man, signs appear from nowhere and seem to signify nothing. So why are they there?It’s probably no accident that Larry teaches physics and is first seen lecturing on Schrödinger’s Cat, the famous quantum-mechanics paradox illustrating the uncertainty principle: the cat in the box is simultaneously alive and dead. So is Larry; so, maybe, is God, or at least the God in the movie.
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