Sunday, 3 April 2011
Upon it's release, A Serious Man was subject to rave reviews: nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, as well as Best Original Screenplay, some critics dubbed it "The Coen's best film yet". With such nominations as this, this clearly wasn't a rash statement to make. I'm going through a bit of a Coen phase at the moment, delving deep into the Coenverse (yes I did just say Coenverse, stop sniggering, I didn't make it up) and by the film's reputation this was an important port of call.
The film is set in 1967, and centres around Larry Gopnik, a middle-aged physics professor who's seemingly stable life quickly descends into disarray and chaos as a result of "a series of unfortunate events", primarily his wife demanding a "get", a Jewish divorce document, so she is able to marry old family friend Sy Ableman. From this, I think it's fair to say the film isn't a barrel of laughs, the Coens exercising all their sadistic tendencies on said protagonist; the film asks the question which at some point we've all asked ourselves (with varying degrees of seriousness and volume) - "Why me?"
It isn't an easy ride. I think the Coen's renowned wit and general hilarity was supposed to be the comic relief to the bleak nature of the film, but for me it just wasn't funny enough. I was a little disappointed - there were of course funny moments, my favourite being Gopnik's encounter with the father of a failing Korean student, the student having offered Gopnik a bribe to bump his grade up to a passing C. Upon Gopnik's rejection of the bribe, the father comes to Gopnik's house and declares that by his rejection of the bribe he is defaming his son; "culture clash" the man says, whilst bumping his fists together. This is just one example of the film's humour, but for me there just wasn't enough of it. I didn't laugh out loud in the same way I did at Fargo or Burn After Reading. But, of course, in the film's defence, this isn't a straightforward Coen comedy - it's incredibly bleak, but then again so was Fargo. But I don't know whether the film was supposed to be hilariously funny. Instead, it was thought provoking, characters in the film dealing with dismal problems and asking difficult questions - the existence of God, fidelity, the relevance of religion all being questioned, as well as the argument of science vs. religion being displayed through Gopnik's physics lectures and his praising of mathematics, and it's ability to give answers without ambiguity.
However, strangely, the film's darkness made the warmer moments much sweeter. An example of which can be found in Gopnik's son's Bar Mitzvah, in which his wife takes him by the arm and whispers "I'm sorry that things have been so hard for us", to which he simply replies "It's OK." And this brings with it one of the film's key messages - at the start there is a quotation which says "Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you". Not very poetic, but in the context of the film, and I say this in the least cheesiest way possible, beautifully resonant. Gopnik accepts all that comes his way with an enviable subtlety. Obviously, he's upset, as anyone would be in his situation, but it is expressed in a subdued fashion rather than in the cartoonish, outlandish way commonplace in other Coen films. This subtlety can be seen throughout the film, in the blue-grey colour scheme, the deadpan dialogue typical of the Coens, and nowhere more so than in Michael Stuhlbarg's wonderfully underplayed portrayal of Gopnik. For all the character's bad luck, he only comes close to tears once. In one of his physics lectures he explains the Uncertainty principle: "It proves we can't ever really know... what's going on. So it shouldn't bother you. Not being able to figure anything out." This is a concept which he himself would benefit from dwelling upon, and something to think about and take away from the film.
With a double-cliffhanger which well and truly tugs the carpet from under your feet, and with one of the best, most tantalising last shots I've ever seen, your jaw will be on the floor after the last scene. The film draws to a close with the brewing of a frightening storm, possibly foreshadowing the fate of the characters. No, the film isn't hysterically funny, and no, it isn't the best CoBros film (that one I DID make up), but it definitely puts up a good fight. Where other films in the Coenverse have gone straight for the jugular, this is a much more restrained, discreet affair, and being an extremely pleasurable experience because of it. A different, but nonetheless enjoyable entry into the catalogue of Coen.
Posted by A Bonfire of the Vanities at 08:39