Monday, December 07, 2009

A Serious Review for a Serious Man

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. He said: “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings both human and divine, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, ”Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

(Genesis 32:22-31).

Even though Michael Stuhlbarg is the first billed actor in the Coen brother’s A Serious Man, the lead role properly belongs to the God of Israel whose presence is so acutely felt throughout the film precisely because he is entirely absent. In the character of Larry Gopnik the Cohens have presented us with a protagonist of Biblical proportions, one who naturally draws comparisons with both a Jacob and a Job, even though on the surface he looks and acts like the most nebbish, pathetic and passive character to walk into a Hollywood film in quite some time (think William Macy in Boogie Nights crossed with Rick Moranis). Yet that surface only runs skin deep, since beneath the glasses and stuttering Stuhlbarg internalizes a struggle and a striving with beings both human and divine that is both epic and tragic, the stuff of great poetry and drama.

The film is an ode of sorts to the Cohen’s childhood, a condemnation of the middle-class Jewish suburban culture of Minnesota where they grew up. Gopnik is a painfully mundane character, joining the pantheon of other Cohen characters who are so pathetic we can’t but laugh at them, yet at the same time their brokenness and confusion reveal things deep and profound about our human condition, making us care for them deeply. If there is a fault in the film it is that the Cohen’s seem to lack this empathy themselves, a fault one can find with many of their films, and one is left with the feeling that Larry Gopnik is disdained not so much by God but by the brothers Cohen.

There is not much in terms of a traditional story here, but more of a meditation on life and meaning, which is refreshing in a (semi-)mainstream Hollywood film. Gopnik lives in the suburbs, has a job teaching physics at a university and is up for tenure, he has a wife and two kids and is an upstanding (if not devoted) member of the Jewish community. In short, he is a serious man. Yet little by little things start going wrong. His bum of a brother is sleeping on the couch. His wife leaves him for a friend who treats Larry with so much sympathy and tenderness when breaking the news that Larry seems all the more pathetic for it. Someone is sending anonymous, hateful letters to the tenure committee. One of his neighbors is an anti-Semite who likes to brandish a gun and another is a sex-crazed and beautiful pothead who drives him nuts by sunbathing in the nude. Larry’s life begins to unravel and he is put to the proverbial test, and to an Israelite (one who strives with God) this inevitably leads to questions about who is doing the testing, and why.

Larry goes to several rabbis in search for answers yet their religion and scripture are only means of comfort and false placidity. Why ask questions about meaning and truth? Say your prayers and trust in God. The Cohen’s critique here is both wonderful and deep, a Kierkegaardian dissemination of the shallowness of much of organized religion. C.S. Lewis once remarked that an atheist is much closer to God than most people who claim to be religious because the atheist wrestles with God. It takes courage and a willingness to suffer if one is to ask questions of God, and to demand answers. The Cohen’s definitely show that courage here, making this film more spiritually profound and meaningful than almost any ostensibly “religious” film in recent memory.

A Serious Man is not a film without its problems. The script is not nearly as tight or poetic as the Cohen’s previous effort No Country for Old Men. The acting is great all around yet some of the characters do not get their due, fading in and out of view much too rapidly (especially Amy Landecker in a wonderful performance as Larry’s libidinous neighbor). And, to reiterate, it is sad that the Cohen’s often seem unable to appreciate how wonderful and strange their characters are. The main element keeping the film from greatness is the same flaw that similarly hurt the wonderful Fargo, namely that the filmmakers disdain for the lead character is so all-consuming that they are unable to fully explore the character and what he or she can tell us.

Yet this is ultimately a deep and poetic film, one that brings up philosophical and spiritual issues that are usually anathema from Hollywood. There are no easy answers to the sort of questions that are raised here and that makes them worth asking. Larry realizes that his knowledge of physics and numbers cannot reveal to him the meaning of his existence nor justify his suffering. So he must continue to wrestle with God, which means facing ever greater suffering and to keep asking questions, until ultimately he, like Job, having lost everything, will stare into the whirlwind and see the face of God.


r. charles said...

Great review. I've heard generally mixed things about this movie, but until now, I don't feel I've gotten a clear idea as to what it's actually about (beyond the superficial aspects). The thing I like about movies such as how you've portrayed this one is that, despite being flawed, they still have tremendous viewing value. I think we (or at least the industry/media) sometimes underestimate the importance of that. Anyway, I definitely want to see this now, but I'll probably have to wait until it's out on DVD.

agust symeon said...

If you get a chance you should see it in theaters. One problem with this film is that it is so deliberately underwhelming that I think some of the nuances might get lost on DVD. The cinematography is really nice and the music fits the film perfectly (Carter Burwell does the music, whom I omitted to praise in my over exuberant WTWTA bashing).

R Logan L said...

I'm not entirely sure why this movie didn't grip me. The more it settles, the more I think I really only appreciate the technical aspects of the film. Maybe part of the problem was that Larry seems like the only real character in the movie. In that sense, I'd say he's the only person the Coens actually cared for. I didn't buy into the wife, either neighbor, the kids, Sal, the brother, the rabbis.....they all seemed fake. They all existed to make Larry's life more miserable it seems. In that sense, the Coens weren't very nice to Larry.

I could appreciate all the questioning he did. And I'd like to buy more into the Job analogy, but the problem for me is that Larry, although serious, was not especially pious. He was just a good guy. His faith probably meant something to him, but if it was a part of his daily life at all, then it was probably just routine. I don't buy that he was having some deep spiritual disenchantment. Rather, I think he was just starting to take his religion seriously since all the bad stuff started to happen. Honestly, though, I do think the movie is more interesting with Larry being this way.

In the end I guess I just couldn't find a motivating answer to the question "so what?"