Friday, October 23, 2009

A Serious Man

In the middle of A Serious Man, our beleaguered Job-like hero Larry Gopnik meets an ineffectual rabbi who relays a parable of a Jewish dentist finding the phrase "Help Me" naturally inscribed in Hebrew in the insides of a gentile man's teeth. This drives the dentist crazy. What does it mean? What should the dentist do? If it's a sign, what is the sign telling him? What's the moral of the story? The ineffectual rabbi, of course, doesn't give poor Larry one.

This scene encapsulates the heart of Joel and Ethan Coen's latest film, which offers a compelling story, poses many theological and spiritual questions, then deliberately, maddeningly, frustratingly refuses to offer answers.

This is not what Larry needs. A Jewish physics professor at a Minnesota-based university in 1967, Larry's life is slowly and steadily spiraling downward. His wife's leaving him for his creepily intrusive and unnervingly sympathetic friend. His neighbor's honing in on his property. His brother's staying on his couch, hoarding the bathroom and getting into trouble with the law. The tenure board's getting eloquently-written anonymous letters urging it to not grant Larry tenure. His son keeps nagging him to fix the reception on the TV. His daughter's slowly and steadily stealing money from him to pay for a nose job. His divorce and real estate lawyers are bleeding him dry financially with their ungodly hourly rates. He's getting bribes - then threats - from a student to give the student a good grade.

He needs help. He needs answers. And he's not getting any.

A Serious Man isn't about offering answers. It's about offering questions - about morality, about God, about spirituality - that only lead to more questions.

Of course, the above statement makes the movie sound heavy-handed and portentous, which it is not. It is, after all, a Coen Brothers movie. It's quirky and funny, though it's quirks and humor are dry (rather than wacky or silly) in nature.

Okay, that's not entirely true. One scene centered on a rabbi's "advice" to Larry (concerning parking lots) is laugh-out loud funny, as is another concerning another rabbi's advice to Larry's son, Danny, on Danny's bar mitzvah (which will sound oddly familiar to anyone versed in the music of Jefferson Airplane). But, for the most part, the humor in A Serious Man is more of the sardonic and wince-inducing variety.

The cast is filled with actors you either don't recognize or vaguely recognize (Richard Kind and Adam Arkin are the most recognizable faces), and they're all very, very good. In particular, Michael Stuhlbarg is perfectly cast as Larry. Even though the weight of the world gets heavier and heavier on Larry's shoulders, Stuhlbarg less as a pathetic, self-pitying loser but more as someone keeping up a good front and trying to hold it together. He actually plays Larry as someone who's an optimist at heart. Fred Melamed as Sy, the way-too-eager-to-hug friend who wants to marry Larry's wife, also steals every scene he's in (even one where he's simply driving his car and has no lines).

The ending, which I won't reveal here, originally left me feeling frustrated and mildly cheated. However, later that evening, I thought about it more, and realized the movie could only end the way it does. As frustrating as the ending is, a pat conclusion would betray the rest of the film. It offers you the parable and like any worthwhile parable, it leaves it up to you to figure out the moral.

Still wanting a hint,

James "Dybbuk" Comtois

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