Saturday, October 31, 2009

Get Serious

I needn't dwell too much on my fondness for the Coen Brothers. A disproportionate number of my favorite films are their handiwork, and I anticipate each new release with a special eagerness. Hand-in-glove with this anticipation is the question of what, exactly, makes for a Coen Brothers film. That's not as easy a question as it sounds, at least not for me. Their films are as noted for their dissimilarities (think No Country for Old Men versus O Brother Where Art Thou?) as for those things common to all, and I couldn't confidently say that those common things--an eye for the quirky, a love of oddball characters, wonderful dialog--would guarantee a great film. And of course they haven't ALL been great: Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers seem to have come and gone without too much attention.

Their latest film, A Serious Man, seems more rooted in reality than most of their films, playing with elements of the Coens' own upbringing in suburban Minneapolis in the '60s and '70s. New York stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a college physics professor whose life suddenly and unexpectedly comes apart at the seams. His wife announces one day that their marriage is over and she wants to marry a family friend; his two kids are dysfunctional--his son is distracted in school and an habitual pot smoker, and his daughter is hateful and shrill; Larry's brother has moved in with Larry and family, making for an additional stressor on everyone; Larry is up for tenure at work, but some anonymous person is attempting to sabotage that tenure; and he's being blackmailed by an underperforming student.

Larry's response to this meltdown is to turn to his Jewish faith for answers and support, which in this case has the effect of going out in a storm to yell at the weather. His problems continue to snowball, and each person to whom he turns for help--even those who mean well--only makes his problems worse. Part exploration of Jewish culture, part Kafka novel, the film ends up being--how else to say it?--unmistakeably Coen Brothers, an oddball black comedy that raises a bunch of questions and answers none of them. In fact, though the movie is quite funny, the thru-line of the story doesn't sound like it has the makings of a comedy. I've noted this before, that for our own convenience we pigeonhole their movies as being THIS or THAT, but their comedies are often laced with darkness and violence, and their dramas are often quite funny. I guess this shape-shifting ambivalence is another part of their formula.

And so I find myself attached to whatever the "Coen-ness" is, but not every movie has the same resonance for me. A Serious Man does the Coens' usual job of introducing us to a stable of not-quite-normal characters (to widely varying degrees) and then letting us join them in their twisted little sandbox. But ironically, the world of this film--Jewish life in late '60s suburban Minneapolis--doesn't provide me with much familiar territory. The Minneapolis part I know very well, of course; but the Jewish part is just too far afield from my experience to provide a useful paradigm. It's often the case, of course, that a story's spine is unfamiliar to me personally (say, the ganster's life from Miller's Crossing or a '90s stoner in L.A. in The Big Lebowski), but most of these stories take place in a world which I've fleshed out through literature or in fantasy; I simply don't have any connection to Jewishness. But I imagine someone more familiar with this than I will find all the Coens' usual filmmaking virtues in abundance here.

But absent that connection, I find I'm hobbled in my access to the story, which in turn prevents me from being carried along quite as fully as I'm used to with their films. It's all wonderfully acted, of course, and beautifully shot (the Brothers are working again with Roger Deakins, after using Emmanuel Lubezki on Burn After Reading), though many of the film's roles serve only as bumpers in a pinball machine, as something for Larry to carom off of as he is ground up by life.

Here's another one I'll want to watch again, and maybe I'll suddenly see something I missed the first time around. But for now I will say that many of their past films have worked so well for me because the disparate elements of filmmaking have come together in rare fashion. A Serious Man doesn't hit as many marks for me (but I will say that the ending will keep people talking).

Grade: B-


dbackdad said...

Nice review. I intend to go see it in the next week.

What I found even more interesting, however, was your appraisal and particular fondness for all things Coen. There wasn't a single thing you said that wouldn't also apply to my love of their movies. Well done.

wunelle said...

Let me know what you think. I find, after sleeping on it, that things replay in the mind. And what to make of the ending? Well, I won't get to see it again for about a week and a half.

dbackdad said...

Speaking of Coen endings ... No Country's had always kinda stumped me, though I really like the movie. I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy's book. Now I understand. Or I at least understand that their ending was much like the book's. Great book, BTW.

Dzesika said...

Added to the Netflix queue ... will get back to you :)