Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Comedy A Serious Man (2009)

A Serious Man (2009)

The other day, after seeing the Coen Brothers’ new film A Serious Man, I was, as always, reading various reviews from other critics online. One critic referred to the Coens as Stanley Kubrick’s grandchildren, and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. He was eluding to the icy, almost heartless brilliance the filmmakers share; the disparagement that allows no emotion beyond the unforgiving laugh.


Does obscurity equal art? It is a universal fear that some of the greatest pieces of art of our time just have that reputation because no answers are ever given. A Serious Man forces the issue in ways that will either floor you or drive you batty. There are Coen movies that are insignificant goofs, such as The Hudsucker Proxy, Burn After Reading and The Ladykillers, and then there are the ones that matter. This is one of the ones that matter, and it’s a work of brutal comic genius, in some ways even more brutal than No Country for Old Men. Some have already called the film disgraceful. I think it’s a masterwork and one of their very best movies – a pitch-black Old Testament farce in which God is either unsure, daydreaming, or somewhat upset. It’s a film to haunt you for a long time to come and it is one of the best of 2009.


Maybe in describing the premise, I might be able to explain why the inconsequence and jadedness of the film is so brilliant; so essential. The film begins peculiarly and ends abruptly, without much occurring in the middle (including, what feels like, 50 dream sequences). It gives us many conversations that the characters have with information that ultimately all add to naught. People die and people get high. All set to the music of Jefferson Airplane. It’s a madhouse!


Physics professor Larry Gopnik, played by the exceptional Michael Stuhlbarg in accurately controlled notches of alarm, is God’s chosen victim, coping with a failing marriage, his son’s forthcoming bar mitzvah, a South Korean student bribing him for an enhanced evaluation, and a brother (played by Richard Kind) beleaguered by a literal pain in the neck. The time is 1967. The film activates with a Yiddish-language prologue set about 100 years earlier in a Polish shtetl, in which a man and a woman are visited by a primordial character (Fyvush Finkel). The wife thinks he may be a “dybbuk”, or supernatural intruder, and handles the matter in a way that either protects them or jinxes them — we don’t know. And we never find out. Do we?


A Serious Man is being constantly compared to the Book of Job, but I think that that is just a game the directors’ are playing with their audience. In the same way that O Brother, Where Art Thou is supposedly based on Homer’s Odyssey, or that Fargo begins with a statement that says it is based on a true story, despite there being no evidence to that fact. Kubrick was guilty of similar antics. The Coens do this because they understand true art. They understand that the experience of a film does not end when the movie ends. Films are living, breathing things and the art of films change over time. I mean, just look at The Big Lebowski.


The key scene to what the movie is about, however, occurs at about the half-way point. A Rabbi relays to Larry the fable of “The Goy’s Teeth,” in which a dentist finds Hebrew letters inscribed on the back of the teeth of one of his patients. He is plagued by bewilderment and obsession and tries everything he can think of to figure out how this could have happened. When he isn’t given any answers he’s obsession ceases and he returns to normal life. This is how the fable ends. Larry, utterly confused, asks “So what happened to the Goy” and the Rabbi replies “The Goy? Who cares?”


Do the Coens care? I am not sure. I think the question is irrelevant, and people should stop asking it. They are artists, true artists. Like Stanley Kubrick, they will stand the test of time. A Serious Man is so exquisitely realized that it feels like a perfect film, even though it clearly isn’t. It is too unique for that. Love it. Hate it. See it.


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