Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Review of A Serious Man

Nice try, guys, but, to paraphrase Richard Masur in Risky Business, it isn't quite Princeton material, is it?

This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission.

By the way, I need to give a nice thank-you to Trina Robba, the editor/publisher of ICON, for pretty much letting me run hog-wild with the column and the round-up. It's nice to have that kind of freedom. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Oh, speaking of independent film, my interview with writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) is appearing in this month's Park Place. Will provide a link and funny story when it's up.


As filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen are living the charmed life. They can pretty much make any movie they desire while securing legitimate stars like Tom Hanks and George Clooney. The brothers have won Oscars and critical raves, but they’ve achieved box-office and cultural success--we all know one guy who adores The Big Lebowski a little too much; Fargo turned Frances McDormand and William H. Macy into names everyone knows, and not just cherished character actors.

If you’re a frequent moviegoer—especially one stuck in the multiplex-heavy suburbs—you treasure the Coen Brothers. However, there’s a price you pay for their creative expression: they don’t have to placate you. This principal allowed Woody Allen, flush from the success of Annie Hall, to make Interiors and Stardust Memories. It gave Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, Traffic) the power to unleash a somnolent four-hour long biopic of Che Guevara upon the masses. Years ago, it caused Francis Ford Coppola to make One from the Heart, a big-budget, super-sophisticated, and unwatchable romantic comedy.

I consider A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers’ latest film, to be a necessary cost of enjoying their creativity. You may find the movie hilarious and insightful. I found it 105 minutes of rudderless, goofy philosophical/moral riffing, the kind of wild goose chase that was more entertaining and far less pretentious in The Big Lebowski or last year’s Burn After Reading.

With the exception of its introduction, the film takes place somewhere in the Midwest in 1967, where physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is coming undone. His wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce right now, but a stream of crises and two bratty, demanding kids mean that he can’t make a clean break. Things are no better at work where the tenure committee is receiving anonymous letters denigrating Gopnik’s character. Meanwhile, a failing South Korean student (David Kang) is threatening him with a lawsuit, and a record club keeps calling his office to demand payment for Santana albums.

That’s not all. Gopnik’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is a mathematical wizard who can’t stay out of trouble or out of Gopnik’s life. Between lawyer visits, a car accident, an unexpected funeral, a bar mitzvah, and his family taking his money, poor Gopnik can barely afford his crappy motel room. Oh, and he shares that with Arthur, who snores and feels that God is plotting against him.

Feeling desperate, Gopnik seeks guidance from three rabbis. One offers him self-help nonsense, another delivers an inconclusive story about a dentist who finds Hebrew written in a Gentile patient’s teeth, and the third is too busy “thinking” to even see the beleaguered Gopnik. A friend tells Gopnik that the Jews’ past has tons of stories for him to draw lessons from, but it’s doubtful that Moses ever had to lead his people through the perils of lawyers, demanding kids, or topless female sunbathers.

And Moses took action. Gopnik, who Stuhlbarg plays to nebbish perfection, is not one to take initiative. As a professor, he believes in theorems and equations; everything has an answer. It’s the same thing with his life and his faith: he has always accepted what’s given to him. Consequently, he can’t stand up for himself. When his wife and her overbearing lover (Fred Melamed) insist Gopnik move out of his own house, he accepts it like it’s a judge’s ruling. He’s gone along for the ride, and now that it’s become unbearable, he wants to be dropped off. It’s not that simple, especially when he can’t get guidance from the people he always thought could help him.

A Serious Man is a fine parable on the limits of religion and our own morality that would be more potent as an hour-long drama. The Coen Brothers offer lots of fakes and side routes in portraying Gopnik’s dilemma, which I usually wouldn’t mind, but there’s no fun, no intellectual provoking in any of the asides or the quirky characters (Kind, a gifted actor and Clooney’s close friend, is wasted here). What happens instead is we get a big setup to a punch line that not only takes forever to arrive, but is one we’ve heard before. Life sucks and adjustment is awful. What else do you have that Crimes and Misdemeanors or the novels of Philip Roth didn’t cover better? A Serious Man provides a lesson for movie fans, but not the one the Coen Brothers intended: just because two respected filmmakers tackle a weighty subject, that doesn’t mean you’re required to like it. Reputation is not a substitute for quality. [R]

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