Monday, October 26, 2009

Film Review: "A Serious Man"

"A Serious Man"...An ironic title for a movie by the Coen Brothers, who are known for mocking their characters, for whom they create impossible dilemmas. I want the Coens to get out of the way of their own stories, and allow us to be absorbed by the unusual situations of their characters, without the filmmakers' self-reflexive nihilism.

In "A Serious Man", our protagonist is a Physics professor who is: about to be blackmailed by a failing student; thrown out of the house by his unfaithful wife; overcome by temptation for a neighbor who sunbathes in the nude; and harassed by his soon-to-be bar mitzvah'd son and by his shrewish daughter.  We watch the painful disintegration of this man's life, but we are meant to find it all humorous because, as the Coen's make clear over and again, nothing really matters...actions have unintended consequences....good actions are punished and transgressions are rewarded.  Not groundbreaking stuff, despite the religious mythology.

The mantra here is "I didn't DO anything"...that is, anything to deserve the horrible dilemmas that befall us. Not even faith can provide answers (Rabbis here are portrayed as buffoons).  There is a good film buried here somewhere, but it is undone by a  throwaway tone that lightens the movie to the point of that by the end, when things sort of work themselves out, and then for no reason start to fall apart again, you might have to pinch yourself to remind yourself that this is a Serious Work. 

The Coens are playing to an inside audience, using re-tooled legends and obscure ethnic humor, and references to their own films, so that in-the-know film-buffs will nod in smug recognition at the references to North Dakota ("Fargo") and the absurdity of fate (the film's randomness brings to mind the tossed coin in "No Country for Old Men").

I don't exactly know why the film was set in the late '60s, except perhaps to get laughs from the unfortunate clothing, style and culture of the day---the TV series "F-Troop", for instance, forms a running gag, as do the lyrics of Airplane's "Somebody to Love"--but my guess is that this is a way for the Coens to reconcile their Bar-Mitzvah-age life stories, and to wreak revenge on friends and family members who made their lives hell.  (And, since there are no consequences for any actions, they conveniently relinquish all responsibility....)

Sloppy storytelling disappointed me as well.  After a horrendous car accident (well, the one in which no one was hurt, anyway) our hero seems to have no trouble getting all over town as before.
I guess some will eschew logic and defend the film as some kind of comic poem....but really, this movie is a challenge to sit through without some emotional or intellectual payoff...or even a punchline.

Credit is due to the performers, many of whom are unfamiliar to me...and to some interesting photography, which brought to mind the sun-drenched suburban landscapes of Lynch's "Blue Velvet", or at times a psychedelic "Ice Storm".

NOTE:  My appreciation for any film tends to increase with more preparation going in.  We intended to see "An Education" with Peter Sarsgaard", and chose "Serious Man" as a reluctant fallback.  Had we chosen this film at the start, having made the necessary emotional commitment, it might have been an easier experience.....but, in this case, that chance is slim.

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