Friday, May 7, 2010

A Serious Man (2009)

The book of Job centers around a man who suffers torments bestowed upon him by God as a test. The Coen Brothers 14th film centers around another Job like character. This time his name is Larry Gopnik. Larry is a university professor who is about to be granted tenure. His son is coming closer to having his bar mitzvah. Things take a turn for a worse and in true Coen Brothers fashion, they snowball into disaster.

First, his wife tells him that she wants a divorce and that she has been seeing his best friend Sy Abelman, played with pompous charm by Fred Melamad. At the university, a South Korean student gives Larry an envelope filled with money as an attempt to bribe Larry in order to give him a passing grade.

His son Danny's life isn't any easier. He faces a bully who he owes money to. His daughter Sarah is too self-involved to help. His brother has to drain a cyst on his neck and is a bigger wreck than Larry is. Things outside the Gopnik household are not so pleasant either. He a neighbor who is encrochaing on his property and another one, Mrs. Samsky, who sunbathes in the nude. Much to Gopnik's temptation.

As everything is slowly crumbling around Larry he questions the meaning of it all. The heart of the film is based around 3 rabbis. Larry goes to each to ask what does it all mean. Has Hashem cursed him? What has he done wrong to receive such torment?
One visit to a rabbi leads him to hearing a story about a goy's teeth. What he discovers is that it is not always easy to figure out what God is trying to tell us.

The setting is a suburb in Minnesota during 1967. A time where F troop played on the TV and Jefferson Airplane could be heard through the radio. The Coens grew up in this area and this could be considered their most personal film. Like the Coens best works (No Country For Old Men and Fargo) we are faced with themes about the lack of goodness in humanity.

Some might look at such a synopsis of a story and wonder why one would bother with such a morbid piece of suffering. But it’s the Coen Brothers incredibly artistic and delicate approach to the story that really involves the audience into this downward spiral that is uniquely comical as it is realistically depressing. This balance between comedy and tragedy is so well put together that the film moves at a sensible and enjoyable pace that doesn’t alienate nor push the audience away.

One clue to the whole theme of the film can be found in the middle. Gopnik is teaching his students the Uncertainty Principle. It's the only thing that Larry is certain of. A Serious Man is as dark a comedy the Coens have made. The interpretations of the ending of the film are many and they depend on your outlook in life. It will leave some scratching their head and others really moved. It is a film that not only speaks to the troubled Larry Gopnik but to all who suffer hard times. It is a critique on the quest for answers on why bad things happen to good people. When sometimes all we can is just accept the mystery.

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