A Serious ManThursday 19 Nov 2009
Director: Ethan and Joel Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Adam Arkin, Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus.
Duration: 105 minutes
The Coen brothers always do things differently. Their new offering, entitled 'A Serious Man', is no exception. It is arthouse with a capital 'A' and makes no secret of its intentions from the get-go.
The opening scene is set in a hut located in a forest in Eastern Europe; the language being spoken is Yiddish. A middle-aged man tells his wife that an old, learned neighbour helped him repair a wheel on his cart, only for his wife to say that this neighbour died a number of years back. That neighbour then appears at the door: cue a discussion with said neighbour as to whether he is a ghost or not. Like the sound of that? Well, then you'll probably like this movie.
From here we cut to the psychedelic sound of Jefferson Airplane's iconic hit 'Somebody to Love' and we are transported to 1960s USA, where our story unfolds. This story revolves around a stereotypical 2.4 children, Jewish-American family, the Gopniks, living in a non-descript Mid-Western US town. Father Larry (Stuhlbarg) and son Danny (Wolff) are to become our central protagonists.
We follow university mathematics professor Larry, as he attempts to gain tenure at the local university. Simultaneously, we also follow his son Danny as he negotiates the travails of life as a Jewish kid in the 1960s; whether that is having his Jefferson Airplane tapes confiscated at school, smoking weed or preparing for his Bar Mitzvah.
Larry's character has been seen many times before, both on stage and screen; it is that of a central protagonist beset by misfortune on all sides. This misfortune is put upon Larry as the result of a curse given to his ancestors in the opening scene set in Eastern Europe. This curse becomes evident in Larry's life when a South Korean student of his, who has failed an exam, attempts to bribe Larry for a pass mark. Larry refuses the bribe and from that point on Larry's professional and family life are beset by seemingly fatalistic disaster. The audience's mission, should we choose to accept it, is to follow Larry on his journey of comedic disasters as he tries to gain hold of his life, which is rapidly spiralling out of his comfort zone. Now, I won't go spoiling it by telling you how.
The Coens are masters at creating a web of interlacing stories, seemingly meaningless, but all the while conveying meaning and being funny to beat the band. 'A Serious Man' is a continuation of this convention.
The Coens' 14th feature film reminded me of an 'American Beauty' set in the 1960s; however, thematically it is probably far closer to other Coen brothers' films such as 'The Man Who Wasn't There' and 'Fargo', or even 'The Big Lebowski'.
In actual fact the story is loosely based on the Jewish biblical story of Job. The Coens are no strangers to deploying classical literature in the modern American era, their 2000 film 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' is structured around Homer's 'The Odyssey'.
Joel and Ethan beautifully craft a highly-stylised version of 1967 America that fits the film perfectly. They manage to convey a sense of an era at the peak of its social beliefs, yet a society with too many contradictions to continue living the flower power Utopian dream. This is best conveyed by Larry's neighbours: on one side lives a seductive, pot-smoking, middle-aged Jewish beauty; on the other side lives an anti-Semitic, deer-hunting, middle-aged war veteran. This clash of ideals inherent in the 1960s version of the American Dream is wonderfully represented throughout.
The film is also an intriguing look at Jewish life and its position in American society during this period of societal upheaval. Discussions about Jewish divorces, the meaning of the Jewish afterlife - or lack thereof - and Bar Mitzvahs rarely get an outing in mainstream cinema, but the Coens leap to the opportunity to discuss such subjects. Subjects which no doubt are somewhat influenced by their own academic Jewish upbringing in Minneapolis.
The whole film is punctuated by seamless direction from the brothers, beautiful cinematography from their long-term collaborator Roger Deakins and a superb ensemble cast performance. Throw in a snarling and trippy '60s influenced soundtrack and you have a superb film.
'A Serious Man' is an attempt to look at man's relationship with God; it happens to be a Jewish man and examines that particular faith, but the ideas are universal: Why do bad things keep happening to me? Is it something I've done? This may sound heavy viewing, and for some people it will be. If you've laughed at the Coens' previous work, however, you will definitely laugh at this.
On the way out of the Savoy I bumped into a staff member who worked at the cinema - I think he may have been the owner actually. "Good movie?" he asked. "Great," I replied. "It'll make a lot of money so?" he continued. "Probably not, I don't think many people will see it," I answered. I would imagine that is to be the lot of this great film. Of those who will see it, most will savour it, like a fine Chianti.