Saturday, November 14, 2009

Catching up with "A Serious Man"

So I've got a free weekend and I'm trying to catch up on some movies I missed, starting with "A Serious Man." I knew I had to see it at some point, because I simply must experience all things Coen Bros.

The "Variety" critic aptly described this as the sort of movie you get to make after you've won an Oscar. It's a loose retelling of the Book of Job, recast to the Midwest of the 1960s and with a distinctly Jewish point of few, starring a bunch of unknowns. It's a contemplative tale, darkly humorous and often vexing.

The protagonist is Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a youngish physics professor who's awaiting a chance for tenure when his whole life falls apart, bit by bit. One day his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces that she wants a divorce, and that she's in love with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, who has a voice like gold dipped in honey).

On top of that, his brother Arthur (Richard Kind, the only recognizable actor in the film) is crashing with them, spending his days nursing a nasty cyst in their bathroom and his nights using his math skills to win at gambling. Larry's daughter seems to care only about the state of her hair, and son Danny is about to have his bar mitzvah, in between pining for his transistor radio confiscated by the school principal, smoking dope and running from a bully whom he owes money for said dope.

And more: A Korean student who is failing Larry's class attempts to bribe him for a passing grade; his unbalanced neighbor is encroaching on his property line; the neighbor's wife is sunbathing nude; he can't get in to see the good elderly rabbi, only the unhelpful other two; and someone is sending anonymous letters to the tenure committee, urging his rejection.

The story of Job, for whose who don't know or remember, is about a man whom God punishes with all sorts of ill happenings and temptations to see if he will falter in his faith. With Larry, we're never really sure if it's his faith that's motivating him or just a generic desire to be a mensch, aka a good and serious man.

I generally enjoyed the movie, although Larry is such nudgenick, a man so utterly passive and unable to stand up for himself, that his act wears thin very soon. After an hour or so of nervous stuttering, sweaty lips and quavering questions, we're ready for Larry to grow a pair and take action -- for good or ill, but at least moving in some direction.

I get the sense that "A Serious Man" is a very personal film for Joel and Ethan Coen, and that they're using it to work out some of thoughts about their Jewish faith. That's well and good, but it also makes for a movie that never invites you in.

3 stars

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