Nov 18, 2009

A Serious Man Movie Review

Over the last few decades, directors Joel and Ethan Coen have brought us movies that blur genres and creates absurd heroes. They range from slapstick comedies (O Brother Where Art Thou) to dark film noir (Miller’s Crossing), making them one of the most unpredictable teams directing today. They have also mastered the ability to make us analyze these characters and laugh at their misfortunes without losing sympathy. It has garnered them a following and critical praise, including two Oscars for Best Picture (Fargo and No Country For Old Men).


So how do they stay fresh after so many hits? It’s hard to say, but with a fairly unknown cast, they bring A Serious Man, which touches on personal subjects reflecting their own childhood. The movie takes place in 1967 in a small Minnesota Suburb, featuring anti-semetic and drug dealing neighbors. It focuses on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics teacher who begins to face many struggles ranging from personal to financial. While he’s forced to deal with family issues at home, he’s being forced at work to contemplate bribes for grades while falling further in debt. It’s made more awkward when the tenure committee evaluates his work closely due to some anonymous negative letters to the dean.
While the movie’s central theme is on Larry’s struggles, it takes time to look into the other characters, notably on Danny (Aaron Wolff), his bar mitzvah bound son who loses a walkman in schule with $20 that he owes to the school drug dealer. He also steals Larry’s credit card information to buy Santana albums. The son spends most of the movie either high or trying to get the walkman back while hiding the truth from his father. It rarely creates discomfort on screen, but manages to help the audience sympathize more with Larry and develop reasons to believe that their relationship is not the strongest.
His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick) also tries to play the innocent victim, claiming that their daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is feeling uncomfortable having Larry’s irresponsible brother Arthur (Richard Kind) spending hours in their bathroom draining his cists and sleeping on their couch. It’s later made clear that it’s because Judith wants to marry Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), a serious man who tries to console Larry and convince him that being forced to live in a motel called the Jolly Roger is going to be alright. Things get even harrier when Larry and Sy simultaenously have car collisions and Sy dies. Judith’s image continues to morph into a shrew as she asks Larry to pay for the funeral, even though he clearly is in massive debt. Sy’s ghost also haunts him, using physics as a metaphor for caring.
There is one redemption for the characters, and that is their Jewish faith. Larry turns to the rabbis for wisdom, getting what he takes to be incomprehensible stories about parking lots and dentistry. This is one of the many subtle moments that makes the audience think for themselves on not only Larry’s values, but their own as well. Small spiritual metaphors have been placed throughout the movie not only for the character’s benefits, but the viewer’s as well.
It is also seen in the culture and language. With exception to the opening scene, majority of the Hebrew spoken goes without translation. While the movie has a lot of Jewish themes, it doesn’t segregate the gentile members of the audience. Instead, it serves as a double purpose of exploring how faith can overcome obstacles as well as how humans treat each other in times of hostility.
The movie also delves into musical metaphors. The dominant metaphor is Jefferson Airplane’s “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love” played numerously. The line “When the truth is found to be lies/ And all the joy within you dies/ Don’t you want somebody to love” is highlighted most of the time and provides the truth better than the rabbis ever do, though Larry never hears it and Danny never picks up on it. A Hebrew record Danny is using also is heard repeatedly to show that as Larry gets closer to his faith, Danny is only using it to please his family.
The movie is a spiritual journey and the closer you are to these beliefs, the easier it is to understand. While the Coen Brothers have made faster paced movies, this movie has some of their most dramatic flair, often times becoming a philosophical metanarrative of life. It is funny not in a slapstick or violent way, but instead out of pity. While the movie ends and all of the problems aren’t resolved, Larry begins to realize his worries were insignificant and he joins in the laughter. Life is a funny thing, regardless of creed and the Coen Brothers manage to prove it in one of the most compelling, profound movies of the year.

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