Saturday, 19 December 2009

Cinema: A Serious Man

'A Serious Man' sends the Coen brothers back to where their careers as film makers began: set in a nineteen-sixties suburbia of clapper-board houses, parking lots and strip-malls; costumes and interiors are lovingly recreated in grained or patterned sages and browns; spectacles show themselves to be as good a guide to a decade as its architecture. With a soundtrack of pop-psychedelia that dominated the charts that summer that perfectly scores the stoned atmosphere of the movie, you know you're in safe hands from the outset.

Autobiographical parallels are striking: the directors' father was a professor at a midwest university, just like Larry Gopnik, superbly played by Michael Stuhlbarg; his dope-smoking, bar mitzvah taking son Danny is of the age Joel would have been circa 1967, Ethan being three years younger; the brothers saved up for their first Super 8 camera by mowing the kind of well-groomed lawns that carpet the set; in other words, after more than twenty years of movie making, the Coens are bringing it all back home.

Larry is in a bad way. His wife is leaving him for a recently widowed but supremely smug elder from the synagogue. His kids are breaking whatever picket fence boundaries he puts in their way. His brother is taking up sofa space, making himself unpopular, hogging the bathroom to drain his sebaceous cyst, while working on kabbalistic mathematical theories that will only get him locked away. Larry himself is waiting on the faculty tenure committee while fending over student bribes and threats to his plot from redneck neighbours whose life is spent hunting and fishing, not pondering equations and suffering every angst known to the twentieth century. These ordinary woes of the common man are played out in his dreams as the sufferings of Job.

Larry seeks the advice of three rabbis, from junior to senior, getting little but platitudes and shaggy dog stories for his troubles. All he aspires to is respect from his family, community and synagogue, and a place in the academy - is that too much to ask? We're never quite sure. As a tornado heads towards town, some of life's dilemmas have been resolved, but new ones present themselves. The Coens realise their world, establish its characters and then leaves them - and us - to their own devices as the credits roll. As I walked out of the cinema, I felt underwhelmed. And yet I find myself quietly haunted by it. Why?

Perhaps it's because Larry, for all his neuroses and calamities, seems on the verge of a breakthrough rather than breakdown that we never witness him reach. If the folk tale that begins the film is a clue to its meaning, its one that I've yet to unravel; more likely, Ethan and Joel are playing an elaborate joke on us, the audience, but not one that I resent. If anything, the elusive nature of the film is its strength. That, and and its punctuation with more than a few laugh-out-loud moments that will appeal to those of us who like our humour dark; our confrontation with life's mysteries and mortalities unflinching. One of the few certainties in life is that we can rely on the Coen brothers to deliver their original vision while others offer pale imitations that fade from our attention before the lights come up. 'A Serious Man' is a serious piece of work you shouldn't miss.

1 comment:

  1. review = my feelings almost exactly. nothing suprising here: our protagonist's family are all comically infuriating and unappreciative, a female neighbour without husband becomes a sex/drugs fantasy, the loner bully thug at school too stupid to catch young danny, the inscrutable orientals, the uncultured goy. more a vanity project for friends and family, i assumed. the prologue (moral: life is threatening but ambiguous?) was my favourite part).