A Serious Man reviews

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Postby dws1982 » Fri Feb 12, 2010 1:38 pm

I'm about ready to write the Coens off completely. I loved No Country For Old Men and I think it still mostly holds up, but it's one of the only times I think they've taken a premise and actually gone somewhere with it and made something of it. (Miller's Crossing is the other.) Maybe Cormac McCarthy deserves most of the credit for No Country. (The movie did follow the novel very closely.) Almost every other time, in every other film, they're all too quick to surrender to the freakshow. Why go anywhere with your premise when you have funny accents to laugh at, old women in ill-fitting clothes to gawk at, and protagonists who can be thrown in the mud and kicked around? Michael Stuhlbarg does a serviceable John Turturro impression, which is fine unless you find Turturro intolerable like I do. The boy who plays the son looked just like a kid at a school I subbed for last year. Nice to be reminded that Fyvush Finkel is still alive. I don't know...I guess I should just admit that whatever there is to "get" about the Coens eludes me.

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Postby Jim20 » Mon Nov 02, 2009 2:28 pm


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Postby Mister Tee » Thu Oct 22, 2009 1:08 pm

Distractions (baseball and otherwise) have kept me from tossing in a response here.

Mainly, I want to address the comparison several have made to Synecdoche NY. I can see the basis of the allusion -- both films are clearly working on some metaphysical level, and suggest a certain inscrutability. But I think there are significant style differences between the two that, for me, vastly favor A Serious Man.

Synecdoche is surreal and proud of it -- featuring a number of details (like the blazing house) that are patently absurd, and also going off on in so many directions (and on so many tangents) that it's hard in the end to keep focus. I had the sense Kaufman never fully digested all his concepts/ideas, and finally just hurled the whole thing out hoping it would somehow cohere. I still liked the film, more than BJ, for what it attempted, and the degree to which it did succeed. But I could never claim to have fully comprehended it.

Serious Man, for me, is a far more realistic (if exaggerated) narrative. The many indignities that befall Stuhlbarg are all grounded in a recognizable, hostile world. I mentioned Woody Allen earlier; having given it more thought, I've decided the character to whom I'd most compare Stuhlbarg is Fielding Mellish in Bananas -- a man confronting a universe that seems to belittle him at every turn. For me, this is classic Jewish-American comedy, and I never felt it took an irrevocably surreal turn -- even moments like the dream sequence at the lake or the "Somebody to Love" encounter with the rabbi are quickly yanked back to reality. There is certainly the implication of an underlying metaphysics throughout, but the Coens deal with that in such witty ways that it again recalls Allen, specifically his New Yorker pieces -- the line "You may not understand the uncertainty principle, but you need to know it for the midterm" could have come directly from Woody's writing. It's intellectual, but an intellectual slipping on a banana peel.

Now, you might well argue that all the things I say are true, except, what about that ending? And there I'd be forced to agree. I think the failure of the film to offer some sort of conclusive resolution, positive or negative, is, on a narrative level, frustrating . As I was leaving the theatre, I heard a couple use the phrase "shaggy dog", and I got where they were coming from. I'd suggest this abrupt shut-off of the narrative might lead one to overstate the difficulty of the film overall. "I don't get it" is certainly a valid response at that point; I to some degree shared it, and this is why i said I'd really like to get hold of the script. I'm guessing that reading it (or re-seeing it) knowing the full contours of the story would cause one to be less thrown off by the sharp curve at the end, and thus to be able to better appreciate what preceded. Not to say the ending -- or the entire film -- may not still come off disappointing for some. But I'm thinking it would feel less confounding, thus less likely to leave one with the sense of non-comprehension -- the basis of the analogy to Synecdoche.

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Postby The Original BJ » Mon Oct 12, 2009 5:34 pm

Well, Mister Tee, maybe this is the year we start disagreeing on everything. I felt about A Serious Man a bit like you felt about The Hurt Locker. True, it's much better than a lot of what's out there, but I can't say I found it anything like the triumph most people seem to think it is. It's not that I didn't like it -- it's more that I'm not sure that I get it. (It's not surprising to me that a couple people have compared this to Synecdoche, New York -- that was another film I didn't much respond to that I felt I didn't really comprehend.)

I've often found the Coens wildly uneven filmmakers. I adore their thrillers, and think No Country, The Man Who Wasn't There, Fargo, and on a smaller scale, Blood Simple, are all terrific. But I don't much respond to their comedies. I think Raising Arizona is barely amusing, O Brother looked great but was often annoying, and I think The Big Lebowski is one of the most obnoxious things ever.

A Serious Man isn't a thriller or really a comedy, so perhaps it's fitting that my response would fall somewhere between my typical Coen reactions. I thought A Serious Man had a lot of interesting elements, but they didn't much cohere for me into something thematically substantial the way they did for others here. Certainly the Coens treat these characters with more humanity than in some of their less successful efforts, but I still felt the film wallowed in too much hollow, Coen quirk. (I assume at least Damien will side with me on this point.)

All of that being said, I've found myself thinking about the film a lot over the past week, a sign at least that the movie has staying power, and perhaps a sign that, were I to revisit it, the compelling, unusual elements might somehow gel a bit more for me. But at the moment, I think it's a bit of a wan film -- worth seeing for sure, but not something I'd march for with great enthusiasm.

Things I liked -- the story about the dentist, the pool scene, the visuals -- particularly the set design, which feels both of the period and very alien -- the cast in general, though I'm not sure I'd want to nominate anyone.

It seems like a rich enough film that a second viewing would be worthwhile, but I'm mostly on the fence about this one.

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Postby Mister Tee » Sat Oct 10, 2009 3:31 pm

When I was in college, our weekend meals tended toward the burger joint-ish, but, once in a while, a few of us would opt for a restaurant that offered something resembling a balanced meal. On one of these occasions, a friend of mine expressed satisfaction, saying what a thrill it was to have actually had dinner, not just an oversized lunch.

Relative to most movies, I had this same feeling about watching A Serious Man. This is a major piece of work, and it feels more like literature than a flick. In fact, it quite clearly recalls a specific strain of literature -- the Jewish/American tragicomic work of such as Roth, Malamud. Friedman and Singer in the 50s and 60s. This work hasn't often been translated to the screen, and when it has, it's often been badly neutered. (The only really successful example is Mazursky's Enemies: A Love Story) And it's easy to see why studios have been reluctant to back such projects: the strong cultural flavor is bound to be off-putting to many mainstream audiences -- you can imagine some development person asking "Can't it be just a little less Jewish?" Which would kill the movie, of course. The script/movie goes all in, and that's what makes it, I think, the best thing I've seen so far this year.

The big suprise is the Coen brothers finding a voice for this material. I can't say I've been a true fan of their comedic work in the past, except maybe Raising Arizona; I've always been baffled by the cult enthusiasm for The Big Lebowski, except for Frances McDormand thought Fargo was way overrated, and thought Burn After Reading was a trifle. Basically, I thought they displayed an emptiness that kept their comedy from being any more than facetious. Here, though, they approximate a human quality that's almost something of a variant on Woody Allen. The plight of our main character Stuhlbarg hits painfully close to home, and his actions, while maddening by the standards of active movie heroes, are more true to life than most want to imagine. ("Try to hold on and maybe it'll stop hurting" is the way a whole lot of us attempt to get through life) And the movie, while biting and full of thematic insight, is above all extremely funny in a very human way. I was almost howling with laughter at numerous places in the film, and it was comedy of an almost vaudevillian sort -- the way Adam Arkin gets laughs simply by saying "Sy Adelman?", or the running gag of no one recognizing the Yiddish word for divorce. Or Stuhlbarg's disbelief that the rabbi won't even explain why he's told the complicated story of the dentist. All this reminds us how much of American comedy -- Broadway through sitcoms -- come from the "answer a question with a question" Yiddish traditions. This is a broad sort of comedy that, in the day, Mike Nichols might have been asked to direct.

And yet the story is, I guess, at heart, a tragedy -- though we don't stick around to see the ultimate outcome. The sudden blackout at the finish is certainly abrupt and jarring (the difference between this and No Country is, No Country confounded us for ten minutes or more, while this only does it for a second). But what more do we need, truly? We've been led to believe, for a few moments, that life might be lightening up -- and then, suddenly, with the phone call and the vision in the sky (great image, by the way), we're back to It's always darkest before it goes totally black. So, not only are the Coens closer to dealing with human behavior than ever before, they're also grappling with larger questions.

I doubt I've conveyed half of what impresses me about this film -- there's so much detail in the script I want to get holds of it as soon as possible to parse it. If there's a better original script this year I'll be stunned. As for its Oscar prospects -- I can't imagine the writers not nominating it, and, if the critics elevate it in their year-end choices, it might contend for directing, as well as be something of a test case for what's possible under the new ten nominee best picture field. As for the actors...I'll heartily endorse Stuhlbarg, though I fear it's the kind of performance that'll get squeezed out by something not as impressive. And, sorry, flipp, I see Kind as not quite enough of a presence in the film to register a supporting nod.

Everyone should see this.

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Postby Sabin » Thu Oct 08, 2009 2:41 pm

So strange that you cite Synecdoche, New York in this forum. I just yesterday described it as a film - like Synecdoche - in which our hope is to do as our hero does not. A cinematographer friend of mine hated the film, said that it leaves you feeling terrible and that it doesn't have anything to say. I disagree with him. It has plenty to say in and out of the context of suburban Jewish existence. It preaches the necessity of making the choice. Like Synecdoche, the manner in which Kaufman and the Coen Brothers fill these meta-voids with their preoccupations is a little disarming but never less than fascinating. I have reservations about both of these films, though ultimately I liked Synecdoche more because I think it's the more daring film, as over-realized as perhaps A Serious Man is under-realized.

As more time goes on, I feel like the Coens' decision to set-up subplots that do not/must not pay off is a bit frustrating. Richard Kind is quite good though the Coens have limited use of him. His mantaculus (?) is a source of answers within the film that provides him no comfort, nor does Larry pay him/it any mind or heed. The scene at the pool is quite touching but I wish it had lingered there for a moment or two more. It might serve as development for Larry to understand what his brother sees in this and what it means to seek out an answer. That scene especially I had problems with. It was far too quick to end.


SPOILERS....
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...okay, let's talk about the ending.

Larry Gopnik has moved through the entire film without making a single, solitary choice outside of smoking a joint with a stone-cold bangin' neighbor. This is a choice made by the Coen Brothers that I understand although do not entirely appreciate. Because he must be plagued with dreams in the exact same fashion as the dentist and all the Jews of years past, he is in a self-fulfilling prophecy of Jewish tradition. He never really errs substantially. All his discretions are in dreams. One of them is quite funny. Was this a mistake? Perhaps. Unlike their dissections of genre and inspiration (film noir, Polanski, screwball, etc), perhaps they don't entirely understand Rashi enough to deviate. This is faithful to Jewish storytelling and perhaps needed to venture into territory that the protagonist's son does.

The ending. Things slowly get better in Larry Gopnik's life. Not because he has remained a serious man, but because that's how life is. It can't stay bad forever. He's not rewarded for not making a choice. He's just along for the ride as the exact same serious man he has always been. His son is Bar Mitzvah-ed, his wife has come back, his brother is...well...everything is going to basically in the long run be fine. Then there's still that envelope full of money and a small planet full of debt. Should Larry Gopnik go under because of such a thing as money? He makes a decision. And we are under the assumption that life will go on because he has made this choice.

Then he gets the call from God and it doesn't sound good. As in all Old Testament stories, God takes direct action. The Coens have made the decision to set this in an Old Testament context.

Meanwhile, his son has gotten his radio back and his money back. There is a storm brewing on the horizon - always in life - and he gets the opportunity to had over the money to the bully who comically chases him home from school. The bully looks back from the tornado at the kid, like "Why the fuck do you think I would care about money right now?" and then back to what may be impending death and stares it straight in the face. This is to contrast the choice that Larry faces. To not be a serious man - a righteous Jew - is death of the soul. Why would you care about money in the face of eradication? He has braved one storm and then risks another. Personally, I would have preferred the Coens end on a shot of the boy in MCU --> CU as he puts his earplugs back in and listens to music in the face of the storm. This would also emphasize that he is the next generation who is looking for his own answers.

This is a frustrating movie but Jews are a frustrating people. So...
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver

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Postby flipp525 » Thu Oct 08, 2009 9:01 am

I had the privilege of seeing A Serious Man last night at the E Street Theater in an event hosted by the timeless publication, The Nation. In addition to a wonderful pre-screening cocktail hour in which local writers were able to meet and converse, there was a thoughtful follow-up discussion led by two of The Nation's top representatives.

Mired in very existential questions concerning the morality (and even mortality) of its characters, A Serious Man is, despite the often humorous events of the film, a serious film. And at its center, Larry Gopnik is perhaps one of the more impressive characters in the Coen Brothers' oeuvre simply because even though he is caught up in such a personal, exploratory journey to find truth in his life, he never shies away from that life. He leads it unselfishly, almost to a fault and much to the audience's ire at times, but he is always present in the film; he shows up for class, if you will.

A Serious Man feels very much like the Coen Brothers' version of Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York: an autobiographical cinematic self-examination using a propped-up funhouse mirror as its source of reflection. While some moments border on the absurd and fantastical (the use of the "dybbuk"; the dentist sequence to name a few), there is a truthiness to the whole that sets the film afloat and keeps it moving toward its dramatic conclusion [Sabin and I came to the same conclusion on Synecdoche...independently].

Michael Stuhlbarg's performance as the bumbling professor is endearing, enthusiastic, and dependable as our gateway into this very Midwestern Jewish world that feels at once foreign and strangely familiar. He works very well as an Everyman; the lack of familiarity with the actor only adds to his efficacy in conveying Larry's struggle. If the Best Actor field proves weak this year, I don't see any reason why he shouldn't be shortlisted, although his relative anonymity could prove a burden.

Richard Kind's portrayal of the reclusive brother is one of the film's standouts. His scene by the motel pool, undoubtedly his Oscar clip if he makes it that far in the race (and he should), encapsulates so much of what this film is about -- it's just beautiful. If Hashem's only goal was this (whatever your "this" is), how do you continue to live your life and be a good person? Kind's performance is lovely, painfully real and even ugly to look at. Conversely, my god, who was the stunning Ann-Margaret lookalike next-door neighbor? I'd go straight for an afternoon with her!

There are problems. Certain threads seem to dangle without being consummated (heh). It's a relatively short film and probably could've gone on for a bit longer. Also, there is a "deus ex machina"-type ending that will undoubtedly cause some fervent discussion (although, I'm leaning towards the notion that it's pretty much right on). It didn't cause the groans and shrieks I remember when No Country for Old Men ended, but there were definitely some "WTF, that's the end?!" around me. We can get into further discussion once more folks on the board have had a chance to see it. The earnestness of the performances and the viability of the piece as a whole certainly make up for any hastily-wrapped up storylines.

This latest Coen Brothers venture should be able to find traction during the awards season, particularly Stuhlbarg's and Kind's honest performances as well as the tight screenplay and assured direction.




Edited By flipp525 on 1255026519
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Postby Sabin » Sun Oct 04, 2009 4:29 am

The latest film by Joel & Ethan Coen opens with an Talmudic tale involving whether or not a houseguest is a dybbuk, a malicious dislocated soul. In typical Jewish practice, every question is met in some form with a question: why are you here? Why shouldn't I be here? In the face of stalemate, action is taken. It may be wrong, but it is taken. Larry Gopnik (the exceptional Michael Stuhlbarg) will spend the entirety of A SERIOUS MAN doing...nothing. Questions will circle like a murder of crows, tightening around his neck like a noose. His search for answers will take him to three Rabbis as he asks "Why me?" He will learn to shift his questions to "What can I specifically do task by task?" It will take reservoirs of strength to finally make a decision...and in typical Old Testament action, God will remind him that this is half the lesson. You must make a decision, but remember who you are.

I am no scholar of the Talmud, and while I admire and herald A SERIOUS MAN as one of the most accomplished films I've seen this year, it serves as reminder to me why I do not practice and why my people can frustrate me so much. Like SYNECHDOCHE, NEW YORK - another film of anxious brilliance - the film is a moral lesson, less abstract though, in which we learn from example. Every Jewish story I've heard in my life involves a man with a problem if not twenty and searching for the answer to all of them at once. He is given an answer by a learned man which does him no good whatsoever. The end. I don't want to shortchange my people because their innate sense of irony is innate in basically everything that I do. So while the experience of watching A SERIOUS MAN is akin to Fellini-esque freak show and human grotesquerie, it's also painfully dead-on. These are Jews physically. I went to Hebrew school. I can attest. I would love to charge the Coen Brothers with being misanthropic in their casting and NOT grow into one of these people. I'll get back to you in a few years. In terms of autobiographical filmmaking, the most revealing aspect is that if these are the Jews they grew up with, it's pretty easy to understand their penchant for...exaggerated humanity, let's say.

But I digress. The Coen Brothers usually approximate another genre as closely as they can and imbue a kernel of worldview within that's often bitter and complex. Their films are often smorgasbords of literary and historical allusions ranging in depth and honesty, but what Coen-heads champion is the richness of the game of hide-and-seek they play. A SERIOUS MAN approximates Talmudic lore. The Coens have never struck me as men of great faith, but in an act of compassion, they seek to make the audience live through the anxiety of the passively Kafka-esque existence of Larry Gopkin as he is albatrossed by more problems than he can handle. Putting their entire filmography aside, I say that in A SERIOUS MAN, those who bemoan their relentless cruelty and especially the final minutes fundamentally miss the point.

All of this is observation. I was very impacted by A SERIOUS MAN. I also have some reservations of its storytelling. Quite a bit of it is incredibly strong, but they do some things that feel lazy. In the second Rabbi's story, we are told of the mystery of the goy with Jewish writing on his teeth and how the Jewish dentist is incapable of sleep until he gets the answers. This is narrative set-up for when Larry cannot sleep...and the manner in which it is conducted is a bit cheap in my eye. It certainly fits within the realm of the film, but it's a little easy, if providing some of the biggest laughs I heard in the theater. The relationship between Larry and his beautiful neighbor doesn't really go as far as I would like. In fact, this is the rare Coen Brothers film where it would not surprise me that they wrote more than we see. By the film's end, it felt a little malnourished in various storylines, one or two beats shy of completion. Their control over visual filmmaking remains awe-inspiring, and their entire ensemble shines. This is a beautifully acted film.

This brings us to the end, and a young boy who just wants back his $20 and pocket transistor radio. The ending will be discussed for some time to come. Jew that I am, I'll answer with a question: why should I care about money now? There's a storm coming, Little Jew. Which way are you going to run?
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Postby Zahveed » Sat Sep 26, 2009 7:18 pm

"It's the least most of us can do, but less of us will do more."

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Postby Mister Tee » Fri Sep 11, 2009 9:25 pm

Hollywood Reporter.


Serious Man -- Film Review
By Kirk Honeycutt, September 11, 2009 01:12 ET

Bottom Line: A seriously funny film about an angst-ridden Jewish professor seeking the answers to life's questions and getting a metaphysical pie in the face.
More Toronto reviews

TORONTO -- The always surprising Coen brothers have finally made a very serious movie with "A Serious Man." It's about God, man's place in the world and the meaning of life, so naturally it's one of their funnier movies. And because the year in question is 1967, the oracle of human wisdom and experience can be found in the lyrics of the immortal rock band Jefferson Airplane. Of course, it can.

"Serious Man" will do serious business among the Coens' many admirers but is not likely to expand the membership rolls greatly. In commercial terms, it's not as gripping as "No Country for Old Men," nor as knee-slapping hilarious as "Fargo" but rather a quiet sort of movie that finds sly humor in the quotidian lives and mind-sets of a Midwestern Jewish community about 40 years ago. So the movie narrows its audience to adults who take comedy seriously.

Returning to their childhood roots in the Midwest, Joel and Ethan Coen have created a modern-day Job, on whose head the writers-directors rain nothing but suffering and pain. And all Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a small university, wants to know is: What did I do?

Larry is a man of the American midcentury who believes that because he brings home the bacon -- though being Jewish it wouldn't be bacon, of course -- he deserves quiet and respect in his own house. But does he get any? Not on your life.

Wife Judith (Sari Lennick) informs him she has developed a friendship with one of their more pretentious acquaintances, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), and wants a divorce. Son Danny (Aaron Wolff) has developed bad relations with a class bully and a tendency to need more cash than is in his allowance.

Daughter Sarah's (Jessica McManus) ongoing relationship with the bathroom and her hair-washing needs have been seriously interrupted by the presence of Larry's lay-about brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), who must constantly drain a neck cyst.

Certainly, no one is the least concerned with Larry or his problems as he is tormented by a bill collector, an Asian student threatening a lawsuit, a letter-writing campaign against his getting tenure at the university and his neighbors. One neighbor is an All-American goy with a distinct dislike of Jews, and the other is a lonely, pot-smoking housewife who sunbathes in the nude.

As troubles mount, Larry constantly seeks advice -- legal advice, of course, but it's spiritual guidance he needs most: What do all these woes mean? The two rabbis who see him draw a blank. They tell useless anecdotes and helplessly mix metaphors, but they are of no more help than his friends or family.

An obsequious man who simply wants to maintain the status quo, Larry finds himself battling forces well beyond his control. Nothing in his life is what he thought it was. A rug has been yanked from under the physics teacher, and the only thing he is sure about is the Uncertainty Principle.

The Coens set this tale within a Jewish community, but the quest for understanding is universal and the impediments to knowledge have a familiar ring. The gurus are clueless, and "enlightenment" comes wrapped in mystical gauze.

Much of the film's humor derives from the utter blindness of everyone to Larry's angst. Everyone, especially his family, is thoroughly involved with themselves and the minutia that surrounds one's existence. Nobody sees a soul in anguish. All that is offered is solemn emptiness from the adults and blithe disregard from his children.

And the Coens, who are the gods of this movie, seem to enjoy tormenting the poor man. Right up until the end, in fact, when they say, "This is nothing. Wait'll you see what we have in store for you next."

"Serious Man" superbly captures the period details of a '60s Midwestern suburb, and cinematographer Roger Deakins is most adept at making it look spiritually bleak. Edited by the Coens under the name of Roderick Jaynes, the film has a wonderful rhythmic quality that underscores the brothers' own brand of deadpan humor.

The movie actually begins with a short story, all in Yiddish, set in a Polish shtetl a century earlier. It's about a dybbuk, or dead person's soul, and it bears no relationship with Larry's torments other than to establish an unforgiving world in which the spiritual remains maddeningly elusive.

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Postby Sabin » Fri Sep 11, 2009 7:47 pm

Wells loves it. But...wow does he paint this as misanthropic!

Slow Death by Jewish Kiki

Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man is a brilliant LQTM black comedy that out-misanthropes Woody Allen by a country mile and positively seethes with contempt for complacent religious culture (in this case '60s era Minnesota Judaism). I was knocked flat in the best way imaginable and have put it right at the top of my Coen-best list. God, it's such a pleasure to take in something this acidic and well-scalpeled. The Coens are fearless at this kind of artful diamond-cutting.


The wickedly acidic and funereal tone and lack of stars means it isn't going to make a dime, but it's a high-calibre achievement by the most gifted filmmaking brothers of our time, and it absolutely must rank as one of the year's ten Best Picture nominees when all is said and done. The Academy fudgies will not be permitted to brush this one aside, and if they do there will be torches and pitchforks such as James Whale never imagined at the corner of Wilshire and La Peer.

The worldview of this maliciously wicked film (which isn't "no-laugh funny" as much as wicked-bitter-toxic funny, which I personally prize above all other kinds) is black as night, black as a damp and sealed-off cellar. Scene after scene tells us that life is drip-drip torture, betrayal and muted hostility are constants, all manner of bad things (including tornadoes) are just around the corner, your family and neighbors will cluck-cluck as you sink into quicksand, etc. (yay?)

This is the stuff that true laughter is made of, and this is a genuinely wonderful film to sit through because of it. It's so refined and compressed and jewel-cut, so precisely calibrated and cold as nitrogen, and yet hilarious as Hades. Literally. I can't wait to catch it a second time.

Only a couple of tough Jewish filmmakers could make a film this despising and contemptuous of their own. And what a way to spur the sales of Jefferson Airplane CDs!

Set in 1969 or '71 (to judge by the music), A Serious Man is about a decent but fatally passive and acquiescent college (High school?) physics teacher named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his family, along with his extended family of neighbors, synagogue members, rabbis, attorneys and whatnot who live in St. Louis Park, Minnesota -- a suburb of Minneapolis.

The story is about Gopnik grappling with one horrific threat and misfortune after another. His wife Judith (Sari Wagner Lennick, who looks like Mrs. Shrek minus the green skin) is planning to leave him for a 50ish grotesque named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). The father of a South Korean student looking for a better grade tries to bribe Gopnik and then sue him for defamation when he won't accept it. His application for tenure appears threatened. His no-account brother Arthur is living on the couch, and is being investigated by police for indecent behavior. There's a slim and foxy next-door neighbor who sunbathes nude in hetr back yard.

Every character in this film except for the teenage kids and the next-door nudist is an appalling Jewish grotesque.(...yay?) The grotesques in Mike Leigh's films have nothing on this bunch. The thought of actually being inside the head and the skin of one of these characters ...eewww!(.......yay?)In a certain light A Serious Man is almost a kind of companion piece to Todd Browning's Freaks, except that Browning's film is greatly compassionate and caring and A Serious Man is anything but.(at this point, I don't know if the Coens or Wells is being anti-Semitic)

You know what this film philosophically is in a nutshell? That kiki joke I passed along a couple of years ago. The one about two anthropologists captured by cannibals in New Guinea, etc.? Chief to anthropologhists: "Death or kiki?" Anthropologist #1 chooses kiki and is beaten, tortured, whipped, flayed and eaten by crocodiles. The chief asks Anthropologist #2 the same question, and he says, "I'm not a brave man so I'll choose death." And the chief goes, "Very well, death...but first, kiki!"
"If you are marching with white nationalists, you are by definition not a very nice person. If Malala Yousafzai had taken part in that rally, you'd have to say 'Okay, I guess Malala sucks now.'" ~ John Oliver

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Postby Mister Tee » Fri Sep 11, 2009 4:26 pm

As a Coen character would put: a bona fide review.

A Serious Man
By TODD MCCARTHY

A Focus Features release presented in association with StudioCanal and Relativity Media of a Working Title production. Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Executive producers, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robert Graf. Directed, written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.

Larry Gopnick - Michael Stuhlbarg
Uncle Arthur - Richard Kind
Sy Ableman - Fred Melamed
Judith Gopnik - Sari Lennick
Divorce Lawyer - Adam Arkin
Mrs. Samsky - Amy Landecker
Rabbi Marshak - Alan Mandell
Dybbuk? - Fyvush Finkel
Shtetl Husband - Allen Lewis Rickman
Shtetl Wife - Yelena Shmulenson
Mr. Brandt - Peter Breitmayer
Mitch Brandt - Brent Braunschweig
Rabbi Scott - Simon Helberg
Clive Park - David Kang
Danny Gopnik - Aaron Wolff
Sarah Gopnik - Jessica McManus
Arlen Finkle - Ari Hoptman
Dr. Sussman - Michael Tezla
Rabbi Nachtner - George Wyner
Solomon Schlutz - Michael Lerner

"A Serious Man" is the kind of picture you get to make after you've won an Oscar. A small film about being Jewish in a Midwestern suburb in 1967, this will be seen as a particularly personal project from Joel and Ethan Coen, and their talent for putting their characters through the wringer in peculiarly funny ways flourishes here on their home turf. With scarcely a familiar name in the entire cast, this Focus release will have to fly on the brothers' names alone, which in this case will mean OK biz in limited playoff in urban areas.
The '60s as we think of them are just barely beginning to touch this insular world of ranch housing, scientific academia, Hebrew school and very square clothing choices, and then only through pubescent Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff), who gets high and listens to Jefferson Airplane when he's supposed to be preparing for his bar mitzvah.

But shouldering a weight of woes worthy of Job is Danny's father, Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), and the trials he must suffer are relentless enough to -- in a buoyant, comical way -- call into question the meaning of life and the nature of God's intentions for his chosen ones. Physics professor Larry is afflicted by his pain-in-the-tuchus brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who's sleeping on the couch with no prospects of leaving; wife Judith (Sari Lennick), who abruptly announces she's leaving him for widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), an overbearing smooth talker and "serious man"; burgeoning pothead son Danny and nose-job-seeking daughter Sarah (Jessicca McManus); a gun-toting redneck next-door neighbor; a failing student who simultaneously bribes and threatens to sue him; and an anonymous letter-writing campaign that may derail his chances for tenure.

If this all sounds like enough material to last a situation comedy for a full season, that's not the way the Coens play it. One doesn't know how (auto)biographical any or all of this is, but there's a tartness to the telling of what amounts to a well-shaped series of anecdotes that bespeaks distant pain or, at least, wincing memory twisted into mordant comedy by time and sensibility. The prevailing strain of humor makes serious light of the characters' foibles in a way that could make some Jews uncomfortable, to the extent that, for certain people, the film might fall into the category of Jewish caricature, even self-hatred.

But to anyone accustomed to the Coens' dark humor through years of exposure, the tone here, on balance, is benign enough. A curious Yiddish-language prologue set in a Polish shtetl establishes a framework in which vigorous disputation and discernment of divine intent are among life's requisites, and so it remains, as Larry, the downtrodden schlemiel and once and future outcast, shuffles among multiple rabbis and lawyers in an attempt to make sense of what is happening to him. Larry, who deals with mathematical certainties in his work, otherwise confronts uncertainties at best and the unknowable at worst, and the most any of the rabbis can do is to say there are some things we're just not meant to know.

This, in a way, gets the Coens themselves off the hook for not attaching any concrete meaning to life or their movie. But strung along the narrative clothesline of debilitating events are moments that blur the boundaries between the irrational, the improbable and the merely intriguing: An elaborate tale of a Jewish dentist who finds Hebrew letters spelling out the words "Help Me" on the backside of a goy's teeth; a sultry neighbor (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes nude and offers to put Larry's moral standards to the test; a bar mitzvah convincingly staged through the eyes of a totally stoned 13-year-old; and fantasies of WASPs on a Jew-hunt.

More than anything, "A Serious Man" would seem to represent a moderately jaundiced memoir of a specific time and place, that being the Minnesota of the Coens' youth. Many such quasi-autobiographical works in literature and film take the form of an escape story by a gifted soul just too sensitive or different to cope any longer with a restrictive environment. To the contrary, the Coens have chosen to identify not with the son but with the father, a man who, as narrative circumstances play out, could have decided to bail out at a certain point. But such a thing never occurs to him for an instant.

Certainly, the Coens' filmmaking skills are sharply attentive to the occasion. Precision is the name of the game in the writing, camera placement, editing, music choices and pitch of the performances, which are poised just so between heightened naturalism and comic stylization.

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Postby Sonic Youth » Fri Sep 11, 2009 12:19 pm

All I have to go on is two Twitter messagees from Noel Murray, who gives it an A-:

"An odder Coens. One of their era/philisophical pastiches, with a shaggy dog structure and mucho eccentricity. Also very funny and distinctive. Introduces the Columbia Record Club as a metaphor for life. These guys are one-of-a-kind."

And a rave capsule review from Now Toronto:

"The Coens rebound from the stiff Burn After Reading with their funniest film since The Big Lebowski, a meticulously constructed farce about the impossibility of understanding the mind of God set in Minnesota's Jewish community circa 1967, where a physics professor (Stuhlbarg) endures all manner of personal challenges in the weeks leading up to his son's bar mitzvah. Math jokes abound – the whole movie could be viewed as a refutation of chaos theory – and the hermetic-neurotic world of half-assimilated American Jewry is recreated with eerie precision. They'll never admit it, but this is probably the brothers' most personal film – and one of their best."

I'm sold. Best Picture nominee. Done!




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