A Serious Man

I never miss a Coen brothers movie. Which isn’t to say that my reaction to them all is the same. Besides not provoking the same reactions at the time, often the reactions change over time and repeated viewings.

Befuddled bemusement, for example, followed The Big Lebowski. But over repeated viewings it has become one of my favorite movies of all time. No Country For Old Men also took multiple viewings to fully figure out, though for entirely different reasons. O Brother! Where Art Thou? was enchanting and remains so. Even Blood Simple was sort of amazing, resurrecting these long-out-of-fashion zooms and giving us a plot that the lead character ultimately didn’t understand.

I’ve maintained that the Coen’s have different styles of films, which sort of forces my hand with this one: Where does it fit? Comedy? Tragedy? Comedy of the darker sort?

I’ll be damned if I know.

I laughed. A lot. At the same time, the entire film is remarkably poignant and—well, it’s a sort of modern retelling of the Book of Job—or maybe a preface to Job?—set in the Midwest in the ‘60s. (1965-1967, given the appearance of “F-Troop”.)

Our hero is Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor who’s up for tenure. He’s got a series of minor nuisances—a disgruntled student, snotty kids, and a loser uncle who makes home life difficult. And as we watch, Larry’s life goes slowly to hell.

Larry’s a decent sort. He’s passionate about the physics he teaches, and about the math behind the physics, although as a wise man once said, there are no answers there. (Something Larry himself must face as he tries to find reasons for his worsening predicament.)

The Coens are always lauded for cleverness, but often also labeled as “cold”. I don’t agree, necessarily, but I see the point. This movie probably remind me most, at least superficially, of The Man Who Wasn’t There. Except that where Billy Bob Thornton’s barber character was metaphorically non-existent and challenging to care about, Larry seems to be strongly guided by a desire to do the right thing.

Where Thornton barber’s misfortunes might evoke a sort of wry smile that tweaks your sense of injustice, you just really wish Larry could catch a break. And it’s quite a roller-coaster ride. You don’t get any easy answers. In fact, the final scenes suggest you may have had the wrong questions all along.

In the telling, of course, you have amazing camerawork by the amazing Roger Deakins. The palette for the movie is the gawdawful, drab ’60s avocado greens and mustard yellows, and the whole thing strongly evokes the faded, crappy Kodachrome you’d see on all those late-night movies-till-dawn programs ca. 1980.

But wow. Amazing stuff. Every shot communicates. It’d be worth seeing again just to see what the various angles and compositions were saying. And then again to try to figure out how all those ugly colors and styles make such an aesthetically pleasing movie.

The Gopnik family itself seems both vaguely familiar and not immediately identifiable, actor Michel Stuhlbarg (Larry) has been a few things, but for the actors playing his wife, daughter and son, this their first roles.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast is a sort of “Who’s Jew”: Richard Kind as poor uncle Arthur, George Wyner, Adam Arkin, Michael Lerner, even Fyvush Finkel as a dybbuk (maybe).

Yes, about that dybbuk. The movie opens with a story about a man who’s helped during a snowstorm by a beloved rabbi. Which would be a blessing, if the rabbi hadn’t died years ago. Because the rabbi did, in fact the man has invited a dybbuk into his home. Which is quite a curse.

But did the rabbi die? Is it really a dybbuk? The ambiguity there may, in fact, be the key to the whole movie. What are blessings and what are curses? Is it always known?

I liked the movie more and more as it went on, I think for its peculiar empathy. Even when Larry does something wrong, you feel for him. There’s no judgment there. He’s human. And it has stayed with me all week.

I started thinking as I left that this may be the best movie of the year, better than my previous champ The Brothers Bloom. I can’t see it getting the attention No Country did: There’s a strong spiritual undercurrent, about Man’s relationship to God, and as dark as it is, there’s something life-affirming about it, where Hollywood seems to prefer nihilism.

The Boy liked it very much, though he missed a lot of the Biblical imagery. He was puzzling out the meaning of the dybbuk though, after I had sort of forgotten it.

I wouldn’t call it a dark comedy, though. As a lover of dark comedies, this felt entirely different to me—perhaps way too much reality. I don’t know. But I’d recommend it on a lot of different levels.

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