' Cinema Romantico: A Serious Man

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Serious Man

I don't always love the movies made by The Coen Brothers but I will always love The Coen Brothers. In this age of box office and the blockbuster they continue making the movies they want to make in the way they want to make them. Their latest, "A Serious Man", is no different. It's less a story with character then it is a stage for them to find a particular theme and then explore it. (It also expertly staged and filmed, but that goes without saying.) Like a rat in some experiment, the life lived by Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, resembling a geekier, wearier Joaquin Phoenix) in the late 60's is about to come unglued in the oddest and seemingly most arbitrary of manners. Larry is Jewish and while one may be quick to compare him to Job (or compare him to a comedic version of Ingrid Bergman screaming at God on the volcano in "Stromboli") I couldn't help but think of Diane Keaton in "Manhattan" discussing the eternally bleak outlook of Swedish films lamenting the absence of God: "It's sooooo Scandinavian."

Larry is a professor at the local high school. He is about to become tenured. His son Danny's (Aaron Wolf) bar mitzvah is on the horizon. Things appear good and solid in a normal, suburban way. But Danny is listening to Grace Slick in class and gets his precious radio confiscated. His brother (Richard Kind) lives at their home and locks himself in the bathroom to drain a cyst ("I'll be out in a minute!") which leaves Larry's daughter in an uproar. His redneck neighbor appears to be infiltrating his property line. But things get worse. A student (David Kang) takes exception to getting an F in a course. If he gets an F he loses his scholarship. He wants the grade changed. Larry contends this is not an option. The student apparently bribes him but doesn't fess up to it. But things get worse. Larry's wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce. She wants to marry this widower named Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). Oh, and the Columbia Record club is hounding him (and haven't we all been there?).

But things get worse. Larry's brother turns out to have a few problems beyond a mere cyst. He will need a lawyer which is another lawyer on top of the lawyer Larry already has for the divorce. Mo money, mo problems. But things get worse. Larry becomes smitten with a vivacious next door neighbor (Amy Landecker) because one day he finds himself on the roof of his home adjusting his antenna when he spies her sunbathing sans clothes in her backyard. What are we to make of this scene? Larry searching the heavens for a signal and then seeing her? Is this good old God tempting him? Or is this meant to symbolize the emptiness or the superficiality of our search?

The Brothers Coen often slip and slide between seriousness and comedy and "A Serious Man" revisits these waters time and again. It is dark but sometimes it is darkly funny. Melamed's performance as Sy is darkly funny. He is so matter of fact about the divorce and the remarriage Larry does not really even have the option of being upset. Melamed's baritone voice generates comedy all on its lonesome as he lectures Larry on the necessity of letting a wine bottle "breathe" or employs the word "eminent" twice in twelve seconds.

Three times Larry visits the Rabbi in an effort get some answers about why his life suddenly is in this spiral. The first Rabbi is one of those young, apple faced, "every day is a blessing" annoying sorts who sees tulips where there are only weeds. "Look at the parking lot, Larry" might be the funniest line of the year. The second Rabbi tells a rambling shaggy dog story that might be the summation of the entire movie....or not. The third Rabbi, the Rabbi Larry has yearned to see all along, doesn't want to see him. Maybe because he has no answers. Maybe because there are no answers.

There are so many different little bits in Larry's unyielding plight that appear to be setting something up further down the road but do not. There is no way to know if this is all coincidence or part of God's Plan, the most overused ministerial phrase of all time (if you ask me). In a sense "A Serious Man" is a comment on God's Plan, or lack thereof.

As you can see there any number of ways to read this film and I'm sure the Coens would happily invite each and every theory because it makes the whole enterprise that much more fun. Heck, I haven't even mentioned the unexpected prologue that opens the movie. But as one of eight hundred million people out here in the blogging wilderness I feel it is necessary to provide my inane interpretation in an effort to say something I'm not sure anyone else would say. So how 'bout this?

After the prologue the movie moves into a trademark funky Coen shot of young Danny's inner ear being fed the sounds of the Jefferson Airplane before, as mentioned earlier, his radio providing said tuneage gets confiscated. Danny spends the rest of the movie trying to reclaim this radio, partily because he slipped a twenty dollar bill into the case containing it that he needs to pay off a bully. But is that really why he wants/needs it back?

Is the radio returned? What do you think? And if it is in what manner do you suppose it is returned and from whom does Danny receive it? Do Grace Slick and The Jefferson Airplane know something we don't? Do they know something even the Rabbi doesn't? Was it not once written that "We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school"?

You think I'm joking. Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not. Maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about. But who does? So maybe I should reference one more quote to sum this up. You don't mind, do you?

Eric Stoltz's bartender in "Kicking and Screaming" said this: "How do you make God laugh? Make a plan." Ah, but sometimes I think to make Himself laugh God makes us think He has a plan.

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