Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Love: A Serious Man

Somehow, along the way, the Coen Brothers became synonymous with quality filmmaking. This is, of course, in spite of the largely held view that about 1/2 of their movies are the cinematic equivalent of a grab bag gift. You can reach in all optimistic until you grab the Salad Shooter (yes, for some reason the Salad Shooter will always be the epitome of as seen on TV schlock for me) and leave the party disappointed and angry. My problem with the Coens is that so many of their films tend to rely on a formulaic approach to organized chaos. Cast of assorted characters, small tastes of noir intrigue, sudden burst of unexpected violence, ambiguous ending, roll credits. They're masters of making the unpredictable predictable, and stick to their guns at the expense of the story. Which is why I'm happy, no, overjoyed to announce that A Serious Man hardly feels like a Coen Brothers film at all. It feels pure, more akin to their earlier works, untouched by A-list stars. It's also a seriously good movie.
Michael Stuhlbarg, a relative newcomer with a series of small television appearances, puts in a starmaking performance as Larry Gopnick, a physics professor operating in mathematical proofs while his life is playing out like a test of Murphy's Law. His wife is leaving him for a serious man, his live-in brother is teetering on the edge of insanity, his son is smoking pot in the Hebrew school bathroom, his daughter wants a nose job, his student is trying to bribe him, I won't tell you the rest. It's 1967, the world is in turmoil, Grace Slick provides the backing vocals to an escalating series of calamities. Gopnick is a modern day Job, being tested and put through the wringer, forced to seek counsel and solace in a trio of nonsense spewing rabbis. For anyone with casual Judaism in their background, or with enough Jewish acquaintances, it's fully loaded with a familiar sardonic tone. A certain instilled fear of the powers that be and the reticent self-loathing created by a suburban life surrounded by gentiles.Yet, it avoids the traps of stereotyping and instead gracefully uses that which is familiar as the ground work for a story rich in characterization and heavy with sly humor. Stuhlbarg is phenomenal, playing his character with enough warmth to keep us caring. He's never a sad sack or a loser, but always a little optimistic, a little cheeky, plugging away at his life and career even as life continues to spin into rapid decline. Stuhlbarg's not the only strong suit, either. Each actor is an exemplar of pitch perfect casting. Sari Lennick, as Larry's wife Judith, is appropriately menacing. The look on her face is one of permanent icy contempt. Fred Melamed, too, is a scene-grabber. As Judith's lover Sy Ableman, he's a pompous man with a silver tongue, who inserts himself seamlessly into the Gopnick family with a bear hug and the condescending delivery of a bottle of wine. Even the kids are remarkably deadpan, carrying out their small rivalry without veering towards any sign of overacting.
I'm in the camp that enjoyed No Country For Old Men, but I will not hesitate to claim that A Serious Man is the Coen's best film in over a decade. 1998's The Big Lebowski was the last slam dunk of theirs in my book, and A Serious Man is every bit as humorous and effective. Really. This is a serious return to form marked by a cast of brilliant unknowns, a meandering approach to the metaphysical and philosophical conundrums of modern living, and (as usual) some solid cinematography. While it doesn't scream box office success, I suspect it will most certainly be taking up one of the ten spaces on the list of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture.

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