Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Coen Brothers' 'A Serious Man': Personal, Jewish and Very Beautiful

  By Lars Trodson

One of the most exciting aspects of the Coen Brothers latest film, “A Serious Man”, is the debate that surrounds it. The fierce protection of the film by its admirers and the outright disdain from its detractors is a rekindling of the movie discussions of earlier decades. Is the film a profound discussion about the meaning of existence, or is it another misanthropic exercise from these sleek cinematic jokesters?

This is what people talked about when “Blow-Up” was released 45 years ago, or when Kubrick unleashed “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange.” It’s what cinephiles yakked about over beer and coffee when Peckinpah made “The Wild Bunch” and “Straw Dogs.”

Movie debates of late have centered on a reduction of that: those people that could not stand “Transformers 2” were yelling at those who lined up to see it; and those who lined up to see it simply gave the finger back.

It wasn’t very enlightening, and the paradigm had gotten tired long before that anyway. The debate wasn’t about the content of the movie, it centered on the question of how a movie so awful could generate any ticket sales at all.

In a way, the Coen’s previous film, “No Country For Old Men”, started the process. People either loved or hated that film -- and I was one of the latter. The mistake I made was in not realizing how fun it would have been to argue my point with anyone who disagreed. I think it may have been I was either out of practice, or I was adopting a kind of political attitude about the process. That is, why argue with anyone whose mind you’re not going to change.

This is how we approach politics and politics has taken the fun out of just about everything -- but most importantly it has diminished the idea of actual debate, where the idea is not to sway your opponent, but to argue as eloquently as you can for your team.

So, when the subject of “No Country For Old Men” came up, I turned into Sean Hannity. Anyone who disagreed with me was an idiot. This is not only ignorant in its own fashion, it isn’t fun or respectful.

When I saw, reluctantly, “A Serious Man”, though, I had an idea from the first frame on that this was something I could tuck into. And this was surprising because I can relate to anyone who is a staunch Coen detractor because I have been one for a long time.

I really liked “O, Brother, Where Art Though?”, “Barton Fink” and “Raising Arizona.” I especially liked “Miller’s Crossing.” As for the Holy Grail, “The Big Lebowksi”, something in my metabolism changed from when I first saw it -- loved it -- to when I rented it on DVD. I couldn’t finish it. I am not a member of the cult.

I actually viscerally hated “No Country For Old Men.” A few scenes were excellent and suspenseful, but I couldn’t tap into the film’s elliptical style, and so when people said, “Oh, this is a great, great film”, I was all “Pshaw!”

So be it.

Before I begin my advocacy, I want to say a word or two about the critical reaction to "A Serious Man," which again was a model of dissenting opinion. Where I think advocates of the movie went wrong is their strenuous assertion of how “personal” this story must have been to the Coens, and how “Jewish” it is. It is absolutely both, no doubt, but I was dismayed with the idea that these two attributes somehow made the experience impenetrable to anyone who was either not a Coen brother or Jewish. I am neither, but I drilled right into the story without effort. I felt the story was concentrating on the idea of what it feels like to feel apart -- and offered up an answer to the questions of why we feel detached from each other and why the universe (or God, G-d, Hashem, family, or boss or spouse or children...) keeps piling one indignity after another on us. How do we cope?

After reading the reviews, I especially determined not to see the film. And this was after reading those review that loved the movie.

Then I sat down and watched it and was treated to a story that seemed both mystical and familiar. The thing that was immediately apparent to me was that the film was anchored by a stunning performance by an actor I had never heard of, Michael Stuhlbarg. He was overlooked by the Oscars, and that is a small artistic crime.

“A Serious Man” is a modern version of a minor vein of storytelling called the comedy of humiliation or embarrassment. It’s almost impossible to pull off, but this film is a supreme example of it, as is the original version of Neil Simon’s “The Heartbreak Kid” from 1972.

Stuhlbarg is an actor from the Charles Grodin and Gene Wilder school; both actors could play (forgive me) the schlemazel without peer. You laughed at him and with him. Stuhlbarg created a character that is constantly humiliated and frustrated while all the while maintaining his dignity and poise. This is a remarkable feat. This is a beautifully reasoned performance, and at the end you feel as though you were able to understand as best you could the man he was trying to be. He was not trying to be the archetypal serious man of the title, but a good man, which is more meaningful and lasting, and he was trying to cope.

I thought the writing of this picture was much less mannered than other Coen movies, and I thought the jokes, of the funnier lines, seemed more organic than usual. The Coens will still repeat a line or a word they find terrifically funny -- "Santana Abraxis!" -- but they did not overdo it this time.

All across the board the performances are low-key and wonderful, from the always sublime Richard Kind, to Adam Arkin -- whose reaction to his law firm's full partner is priceless! -- to Fred Melamed and a host of folks I've never heard from before (Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff). They've all contributed to make a world that seems both slightly off kilter and very real and tangible as well.

The photography, by Roger Deakins -- who has seemingly shot all of the Coen Brothers films -- is crisp and clean, and he made the midwest of the late 1960s look like a travel brochure printed on a fine press.

The other thing about Coen brothers that I think is overlooked (even having been nominated for a couple of Oscars for this) is their skill as film editors. They edit under the name Roderick Jaynes, and even if sometimes I don't get the jokes these boys can edit comedy. They're sense of timing is superb -- nothing is held too long, and their films, unlike almost all Hollywood products these days -- actually feels sculpted and thought out. It seems like they prepare like Hitchcock.

I can't say whether this film has turned me into a Coen brothers fan; their next film is a remake of "True Grit" -- but it doesn't matter. "A Serious Man" is a lovely movie, and it may be personal, and it may be Jewish, but it also may speak to you and move you in a low-key but very meaningful way.