Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Serious Man

Throughout their careers, Joel and Ethan Coen have drawn heavily upon the work of grotesque moralist Flannery O'Connor. Black humor, bleak outlooks on humanity, many of the Coens' central themes can be traced back to O'Connor. Except, that is, O'Connor's spirituality: the Coen brothers have a decidedly anti-humanist streak and, barring the Hell imagery of Barton Fink, have never really dabbled in the spiritual side of things, perhaps because they find their characters so morally repulsive that they see no point.

A Serious Man seeks to rectify this, and the Coens' retelling and reworking of the Biblical story of Job brings their work closer to O'Connor's oeuvre than ever before. Opening with a made-up Yiddish folk tale about a man who may or may not have invited a dybbuk (a corpse possessed by a wandering spirit) into his home, A Serious Man wastes no time taking stock of and poking fun at the brothers' storytelling conceits. Once the story cuts to its present, in 1967 Minnesota, the film draws from the Coen brothers' own lives even as it develops its Biblical parallels.

Job's stand-in here is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a local university. He looks like he already has something nagging at him, but he has no idea what he's in for in the near future. He returns home to discover that his wife wants a divorce. "You knew this was coming," she hisses, though we can see from the bewilderment on his face that this is clearly not so (hilariously, his confusion only angers her more). She's fallen in love with Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), a much older widower who treats Larry in far too friendly a fashion as he's stealing the man's wife. Larry's two teenage kids already seem to know, though the only attention they show their father is in demanding he fix the TV vane or simply stealing from his wallet.

As Larry worries over his private situation, work life begins to turn south as well. The question of his tenure hangs in the balance, just as a disgruntled Korean student attempts to bribe his way out of an F. Before Larry can officially report the boy, the student's father comes and threatens to sue for defamation of character if Larry exposes the bribe. But if Larry keeps the money and doesn't change the grade, Clive's father will out him for taking the money. I'm not accepting your son's bribe, Larry pleads. "That's defamation!" the father retorts, dooming Larry to carry the envelope filled with money around in a sort of limbo.

Interestingly, as the world comes crashing down on Larry piece by piece, A Serious Man contains little in the way of actual story. Characters have unexplained, impossible-yet-bizarrely-plausible quirks that get them in trouble, someone dies long before the climax and without reason (it's a Coen brothers film), but nothing that really moves a narrative happens. What the Coens accomplish instead is a thorough deconstruction of Jewish faith through its pop culture byproduct: Jewish humor. The brothers clearly took from childhood experiences growing up in late-'60s Minnesota as Jewish lads, but their efforts reach far beyond the merely autobiographical and instead into stereotypes and tradition. The stress of a Bar Mitzvah, harpy women, neurosis, phlegm, all are dismantled and reassembled by the Coens.

Even the overall structure of the film aids this; as life spirals out of control for Larry, he visits three rabbis to ask why God is punishing him. Re-arrange that sentence into, "So, this guy is having a lot of problems, so he visits these three rabbis..." and you've got a setup for a joke. Each of them has his own stereotypically Jewish response: one simply stammers that God can be mean sometimes, then tries to point to the bright side of life by looking out of the window, which only shows the synagogue parking lot. Another, with all the time in the world on his hands, has his secretary inform Larry that he's "busy." The second rabbi is the funniest and most Coenesque of all: he spins a long-winded fable about a dentist who discovered Hebrew engravings on a Gentile's teeth. He comes to the same rabbi to decipher why God would place those markings on the man's teeth...Oh, you want to know how that turned out? "Who cares?" the rabbi says with a smile.

Complimenting the directors (as well as Roger Deakins, back with the duo after missing Burn After Reading) seems a waste of time, yet one has to note how their perfect depiction of '60s rambler home suburbia goes beyond simple period goes beyond simple recreation. As with Barton Fink, the compositions of shots can never fully be trusted: sometimes the camera pulls back to capture something huge like the absurd height of Larry's cluttered chalkboard, but mainly the walls close in, always compressing Larry as some new development only makes things worse for him. Aiding the visuals is Skip Lievsay's flawless sound design, which adds gags through barely audible noises (such as Larry's brother Arthur constantly yelling that he'll be out of the bathroom in a minute even when no one on-screen has asked him about it) and even total silence. Tying them together is some of "Roderick Jaynes'" finest editing to date: the editing in No Country For Old Men largely facilitated that movie's suspense, and the same is true here, but it also recalls the more madcap, for-laughs technique of Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski.

Stuhlbarg's performance is worthy of a nomination; we meet Larry just as the first domino tips, and never get to see him remotely happy. He stands at the epicenter of an increasingly turbulent nightmare, buckling under the pressure until he's ready to burst. Yet Stuhlbarg plays this chaos with hysterical deadpan passivity, reacting with bewildered looks and awkward smiles and tics but rarely losing his composure completely. You can believe that this man would come apart dealing with an ever-phoning bill collector from the Columbia Record Club, demanding payment for albums Larry never ordered. Surrounding are a host of unknowns (in stark contrast to last year's star vehicle Burn After Reading), all of whom are even more believable as their kooky characters for, as far as we know, these actors might simply be these people.

By the time we reach the end, the Coens have taken Judaism and Jewish humor and reconstituted them as one and the same. A Serious Man shows their greatest thematic range to date, covering topics such as faith, morality, family and suffering, but all with the devilish wit we're used to them using. The film opens with their idea of an old Yiddish parable and it ends as a whole new one in its own right: a version of Job in which man fails God's test. Its ending is sure to anger many viewers -- though how many times do people need to see a Coen brothers film to know that the ending will throw you? -- but it's perhaps the best example of their take on Jewish humor in the entire film: after all that Larry has suffered through, here at last come the real ordeals.

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