Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Serious Man (2009)

There's nothing funny about the midlife crisis of a Jew.

The Coen brothers have been pumping out movies rather quickly since they won an Oscar for No Country for Old Men. For the third year in a row, the Coen's had a movie in 2009 and, since it was nominated for Best Picture, it seemed it might be a return to classic form after the somewhat disappointing Burn After Reading. What I found in A Serious Man was some extremely interesting film-making, but a movie that wasn't quite the revelation I was expecting or hoping for.

A Serious Man is the story of Larry Gopnik. Larry, played by Michael Stuhlberg, is a generally good guy, expect for the part where he is a Jew, and suddenly his life just goes down the toilet. His wife decides to leave him, he is threatened and bribed by a South Korean exchange student who received a poor grade in his class and his son has picked up a pot habit just before his barmitsvah. As his life unravels, he seeks guidance from the faith, but that's not exactly helpful. The movie should basically be titled, bad stuff happens to a nice guy because God says so, A.K.A. the story of Job. As a rarity for the Coen's, the movie features none of their regular actors, but it is full of their trademark dark humor. The film was nominated for a pair of Oscars, Best Screenplay and Best Picture, but it walked away empty handed. In previous years, this would have been no big surprise, but I'm starting to call 2009 the year of wildly underwhelming movies.

A Serious Man, on a basic level, is an film snobs wet dream. The reason why the Coen's are so widely respected is that they make complex movies that don't spoon feed the audience answers. In this respect, A Serious Man might be the Coen's best movie. The film is a deep movie that is simply full of symbolism, allusion and meaning, but it requires that you look for it. Best of all, the movie is short enough that the lack of traditional pay-off in the end is more thought provoking than anger inducing. The ending still illicited an audible "what" from me, but the more I think about it, the more it works in really interesting ways. The ending is extremely memorable. What prevents it from being perfect in my book is that it feels like the film is building into a climax, but it never gets there. I don't mind the lack of closure, I just dislike the strange thing an abrupt ending does the to dramatic flow of the film. Generally, the lack of closure makes perfect sense here. The only element of the movie that I didn't enjoy was the beginning segment. The Coen's are on the record saying it was simply there to set the mood, but I found it rather confusing in the grand scheme of things. It's also worth mentioning that the humor here is top-notch. Dark humor is rarely done this well.

A Serious Man is a movie that may grow on me if I see it again. Knowing exactly what to expect makes a film like this better and it's impossible to really be ready for this movie. I'm nearly finished watching the Best Picture nominees from 2009 and I'm finding many of them to be fairly underwhelming. A Serious Man is a fine movie, but nowhere near Best Picture material. I say that now, but I know a movie that will grow on me in the future when I see one. Either I'm being brutally honest about A Serious Man, or I am seriously underestimating it. Only time will tell.



Simon said...

I kind of loved this movie, so I don't suppose that looks good for me.

Alfindeol said...

Not exactly true. I think this may be a movie I come to love with time. It's not uncommon for me to give a movie a 6 the first time I see it and a 9 the second.