Sunday, October 18, 2009

Love: A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers, with the exception of one film (I’m assuming I don’t need to remind you of the frustrating Burn After Reading) never disappoint in the their delivery of intriguing stories, incredible performances, and hilarious comedic antics wedged in the midst of dark sadism. But with A Serious Man, they outdo even their best work, unearthing true cinematic excellence with a pervading sense of existential doom to create a lyrical masterpiece.

The trailer foreshadowed the film's tone with its hypnotic beat, a clock exponentially counting down, a rhythm present in every scene and splice of the film. The subtle tension it builds as victim and passive protagonist Larry Gopnik's (Michael Stuhlbarg who melts into the role) life spirals into oblivion, prevents the story from slipping into the boring or schlocky, and fully grounds the often overly zany Coen humor (at best in the Big Lebowski, at its worst in Burn After Reading).

Our recent pop culture obsession with the sixties is a powerful one. The suburban disillusionment, waning economy, and struggle with new freedoms visible every Sunday night during Mad Men, something we can all currently relate to. The Coen's play fully upon this familiarity, show-casing the starkness of the flat suburbs and the clean concrete lines of the college where Larry works. Even the Synagogue is perfectly paneled with the kind of stifling interior you’d rip out immediately if given the chance.

While the vision is bleak, it is also beautiful. The brothers skillfully mix a strong sense of mystical Jewish culture (the prequel starring Fyvush Finkel as a possible dybbuk, who I’m convinced may actually be one in real life, sets the initial tone), and find a strange reluctant splendor in the suburban Midwest landscape through brilliant cinematography. As in their previous works like No Country For Old Men, they prove again that they understand atmosphere and how it can make a movie. There is something haunting in the echo of opera through the perfectly ordered house as Larry and his mentally off brother (Richard Kind showing off his dramatic acting chops) share the living room sofa, or when his young son practices for his Bar Mitzvah with the the F-Troop on in the background. The frightening mystery of science, physics, and mathematics is also expertly woven into the religious and philosophical fabric of the film, making its punch even greater in force. No existential curiosity goes unquestioned.

Seething underneath, you can sense the primal power of God, fate, or chance (whatever you decide to call it). But despite all Larry goes through, the Coen's seem to leave the nature and intentions of that force up for interpretation.

This “show,” don’t “tell” attitude makes all the difference. As Gopnik glides through the film with only a slight neurotic unraveling invisible to his wife seeking a divorce, his religious leaders, coworkers, and lifeless children, you laugh at the disgusting hilarity of his situation, but also cringe, as the powers of the universe seem to take particular joy in destroying the short time that Larry has on this earth. As anyone whose experienced the heavy hand of said "powers that be" can tell you, that’s exactly what it feels like. There are moments of conspiracy, in which you assume that everyone but you seems in on the joke. Each step seems to lead to another catastrophe, a descent into madness that often leaves you laughing and puzzled more than angry. Like Larry you seek help, in a book or a religious counselor, in friends. You question what you’ve been doing wrong, you move forward. You wonder what the future holds. But like Larry, you never know if the cat is alive or dead, or if it even matters; a Coen message at its very best.

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