Oct 24, 2009

A Serious Man

Immediately after watching this new Coen Bros. film, I went home, dusted off my Bible and looked up the Book of Job (which I am still reading; it's long and amazing).
I was trying to understand the point of this frustrating movie. Giving the Coens the benefit of the doubt, I'm guessing it's some sort of modern day biblical parable, and it echoes Job. It's about Larry Gopnik, a Jewish college professor in Minnessota in the late 1960's who gets hit with a relentless series of tribulations that test his decency. He tries looking for answers with the Rabbis in his community, who can't or won't help. The movie starts, amazingly, with a little parable that takes place in a shtetl, in Yiddish. I was so happy to hear entire lines of dialogue beautifully spoken in this language. The parable was in itself maddening, about the point of doing good, or of thinking evil; an illustration of moral ambiguity. The scene seems an homage to the days when films and theater thrived in Yiddish, and even more, to the millennial Jewish culture of storytelling, of teaching through narrative. But to judge from what follows, it's hard to understand why it's there.
The result is disappointing at almost every level.
For one, the Coens have lost sight (ever since O Brother Where Art Thou, it seems) of their funny bone. Their attempts at humor have been leaden (The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading, etc.). To misplace your funny bone in a movie about Jews that attempts humor is a particularly terrible sin. The movie is totally missing warmth and mischief, things that made masterpieces of Fargo, Raising Arizona and the Big Lebowski. It has chutzpah, but it feels stifling and stifled. It has no verve.
One of the main problems of the film is that Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, a resourceful actor stuck in a thankless role) is such a total pushover. He has absolutely no edge. The point about Jewish genius nerds (see Woody Allen, Larry David, Seinfeld, etc.) is that they may be nerdy, but they have rapier wit, or deep neurosis or a fantastically funny, warped way of seeing the world. Larry Gopnik has none of this. He is a decent, boring, literal man with endless tolerance for abuse. Thus, he is extremely unlikable. You can't root for a man that doesn't root for himself.
I kept thinking of Gene Wilder, who could be as meek as a sheep but had this hilarious undercurrent of hysteria. Something like this would have helped the audience not to lose heart with Larry Gopnik.
The Coens have also become intellectually lazy. You can't have an argument with religion, which is what I think this movie is, if you are not going to look sharp. I hate religion, but I respect it as a formidable adversary.
A Serious Man seems made by Jewish atheists duking it out with their religion. Is this a parable of Jewish suffering, of an unduly punishing God? Is it a modern retelling of the Book of Job, just like O Brother is a modern retelling of the Odyssey? Unfortunately, it's hard to tell because the movie refuses to probe deeper into Gopnik's crisis of faith or confidence.
I totally identify with the Coens' criticism of rabbis who speak in platitudes about parking lots or who answer everything with unintelligible parables, but what the movie seems to be saying, which is disturbing me, is that the Jewish oral and written tradition is useless in the face of cruelty. By corollary, so is all storytelling. Why bother telling a story if there is nothing to learn, nothing to be done?
What is the point of the movie? That you can't go to religion to solve your moral and existential dilemmas? Perhaps organized religion is indeed useless, but the source material is not, just read the awesome Book of Job, probably the first existential text about human despair ever written. It would have been interesting if Larry Gopnik realized he had to help himself and decided to turn things around, whether the outcome was good or bad, funny or tragic. But he just keeps flailing and the world is more and more cruel to him. He keeps claiming he didn't do anything. And that is the problem.
I also have a feeling that the Coens, like many modern Jews, including me, are conflicted about their heritage and the ambivalence is palpable. Whatever they are trying to say, it's very confusing. Their portrayal of their Jewish milieu is slightly disturbing. Everybody is a cartoon, and because of this, most characters are unsympathetic. And here, let me bring the example of Larry David, perhaps the most unsympathetic Jewish character that ever walked the Earth. Somebody said in facebook the other day that he is the reason why people hate Jews, (a bit de trop, nes't pas?) that's how polarizing he is. However, Larry David serves a purpose. He is cathartic. He relentlessly explores the fraught relationship of his monstrous inner self with the world at large, and by doing so, he sheds light on all of our interactions, Jewish or not. Dissertations could and should be written about Larry David. I happen to believe not that he is the reason why everybody hates Jews (I wish!) but that überaggressive Jews like him and the deliberately horrid, fearless Sarah Silverman, are actually good for the Jews these days. Onedimensional cartoons in a dramatic film is a different story. Those are actually trickier.
There are some tender and inspired moments, as in the relationship of Larry with his crazy brother Arthur (Richard Kind), and intermittent Coen funniness like a Bar Mitzvah boy stoned out of his gourd, and the always deeply gorgeous cinematography of Roger Deakins, but in all A Serious Man feels disturbingly dessicated and aloof, as if they were trying to do a thesis about storytelling and they forgot to connect with their own hearts.

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