Thursday, October 29, 2009

Review: A Serious Man (2009): 9.4/10

A Serious Man (2009): 9.4/10

Out of the 45 films I have seen so far that have come out in 2009, my vote for the best of those goes to the Coen Brothers' bleakly hysterical A Serious Man.

Let's just get this out of the way; anybody who has a problem or is turned off by the Coen Brothers' extreme cynical worldview is going to hate this. Their cynicism is pushed as far as it can go with this film. This is cynicism and particularly their brand of it in its raw stripped down form. The film shows absolutely no hope for humanity and the shred of it towards the end which does occur is stomped out in the films' final moments. The claim that it may be their best film is not unfounded; it could be my favorite by them.

A Serious Man is basically a retelling of the story of Job. In this film, Job is represented by Larry Gopnik who played by theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg (this guy has a lot of presence. Fascinating to watch in every scene). The performance requires him to watch his life fall apart and he does a fantastic job of it. It is hard to pull off these lines for such a prolonged period of time and not become annoying as a character and he manages to maintain our sympathy (or at least mine) for him even though we wish he would try to do something more than be confounded with the extreme turn that his life takes. This leads him to begin questioning his faith and we see that in his desperate search for an answer as everything around him only gets worse.

For me it is very hard to review this film with a respectable amount of depth because there is so much packed into each scene that it would take many viewings to get a handle on this. Every character is simultaneously part of a pattern and rhythum that the Coens' have cooked up. Every recurring character (and there are many) adds to this built tension as it increases the stress in Larry's life. When they come back later in the film it is only to make the situation for Larry are dealing with worse.

The Jewish culture, religion and community play an essential role in this film. While there is a lot of thematic and soul crushing worldview stuff going on, they are also trying to recreate mid west Jewish suburbia in the 60's. While it is not something I can personally relate to, they create a clear and distinct portrait of how the 60's are dealing with two different worldviews clamoring for dominance. Someone I know has a father that grew up in this enviornment and he was really impressed with how accurate it was to his experiences.

Since at this point I really only have random bits and pieces of things to say since I have only seen this comlplicated picture once, I will delve off into some random thoughts.

There needs to be a shoutout to Fred Melamed for his truly memorable performance as Cy Abelman. His "calming" voice is discomfiting and knowingly deceptive and he plays the character with just the right amount of absurdity to make Larry's situation that much more confusing to him.

I really like that while the film is almost exclusively from Larry's perspective, the only other character to get an individual focus is his son Danny. We see that Danny is in the middle of conflicting world views as he struggles to juggle his familial obligations in preperation for his Batmitzvah and his instincts to be a normal kid who gets into trouble and to explore the changing world of the 60's. The recordings he listens to in his studies of the Torah are contrasted by the ever present music of Jefferson Airplane which represent the changes going on in the decade. It comes to a head in a fantastic pay off in the scene between Danny and Rabbi Marshak.

Something that works so well in this film even more so than their other films is that every scene that is saturated with these truly horrible and depressing perspectives and statements about life are so damn funny at the same time. The more depressing it is the funnier it is. The devastating hopelessness of this film is so successful in that it depressed me and it is all the more impressive that in each scene, the film managed to take me out of those emotions enough for me to be able to laugh at it all...and to be legitimately disturbed by its hopelessness. If that makes sense.

For anyone who did not get the end of No Country for Old Men, be prepared for an ending similar (only in that it leaves you staring at the screen after its end) to that film. But completely different as well.

Carter Burwell's scores are consistently haunting and have become an essential component to the Coen Brothers films and how they function in mood most prominently.

That might be all I have to say about this for now. I do think it is a film that needs to be seen more than once to fully comprehend ones thoughts on it in detail. When I was watching it though it became very clear that their are so many threads running through the film which are marked by characters entrances, exits and repeated occurances of entering and exiting after they have done slightly more damage to this man. Everything is weaved together beautifully. The person I went with saw it as being "a bit all over the place for them" and I can see that perspective but for me it is their most tightly scrpited film.

While I doubt A Serious Man will ever gain the cult status that The Big Lebowski has (overrated in my opinion) it has already gained a lot of momentum as being the film tha most accurately represents their worldview. This is a statement I agree with. I have my worries that this film could hurt them for the future. By this I mean that by after seeing a film that if neccesary can completely sum them up as filmmakers, where do you go from there? It does not get any bleaker than this film. There is no answer. There is no savior from doom. There is no control. It only gets worse. And all you can do is watch.

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