Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Serious Man

A Serious Man is the Coen brother’s semi-affectionate look at their Jewish childhood in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. It’s also a retelling of the book of Job—sort of. The film’s central character, Larry Gopnik , (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mild-mannered physics professor whose greatest thrill in life is to fill a blackboard with formulas. He is also a man of conscience, however, at least to the extent of offering room and board to his near-do-well brother Arthur, a kindly bumpkin who spends most of the day in the bathroom draining a cyst in his neck. Larry’s son and daughter are moving through their noisy, reckless teenaged years, and the household is given a further twist when his wife Judith announces she wants a divorce. His moral angst is heightened further by a Korean student who surreptitiously offers him a bribe to receive a passing grade, a tenure committee that’s about to rule on his future at the university, and a red-necked neighbor who’s planning to build a shed on his side of the lot line.

A subplot details his son’s half-hearted efforts to prepare for his bar mitzvah when he’d rather be smoking dope, listening to Jefferson Airplane, or watching F-Troop.

A good portion of the film concerns itself with Larry’s attempts to find meaning in his discombobulated life by seeking the counsel of a succession of rabbis. It’s the stuff of cliché and caricature, but the Coens are past masters of assembling a succession of deftly framed scenes, ridiculously frozen expressions, perfectly timed sighs. It’s as if a veil of Buster Keatonesque drollery hangs over every shot, so that although the texture is stylized and rather thin, the effect is strong. In fact, the first half of the film is quite tense, as we watch the hero bear up graciously, if a little timidly, under a long succession of insults, affronts, and genuine misfortunes.

The minor characters are superbly portrayed. Adam Arkin (whom we all miss from his days as Adam on Northern Exposure) plays the comforting lawyer and Richard Kind plays the hapless brother to perfection, but Stuhlbarg seals the success of the film by hanging onto our sympathy from beginning to end—often by a thread.

The vision is bleak and the material is the stuff of farce, but the world the Coens have created is robust and engaging. And it’s a Jewish world through and through, with Yiddish and Hebrew expressions flying left and right, and no need to explain anything to the goys, who are merely goys. Is there spiritual sustenance to be drawn at any point from such tomfoolery? I think there is. Somehow, this seems like the texture of family life, of growing up ... of going off the deep end.

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