Sunday, February 21, 2010

A SERIOUS MAN: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Runtime: 106 min.
Verdict: The Coen brothers once again spoil through caricatures what could have been a truly spiritual experience.
Genre: Drama, Comedy

        The God in A Serious Man is certainly not the kind compassionate man who walked on the earth and paid for our sins. I believe in the Baba of Shirdi, a bearded figure himself, and when I look into his eyes, I feel good. Of course, that image is our creation. To us, our God is the very definition of good. We attribute to him, large eyes with a soft gaze, a little smile, a sparkling little face, and a little hand always ready to bless us and help us. I’m not sure that is the God that exists in A Serious Man, or for that matter any film the Coens have made. The Coens God is less of a man, you see, and more of an institution. An institution that doesn’t deal in forgiveness and kindness and all that stuff we define as virtues, but is more inclined towards the evolution of man. All pass through the most arduous exam, and the tough and the virtuous survive under the vision of the Coens’ God, and those who fail are punished rather mercilessly, for that God neither is bound by nor makes any distinction between mercy and cruelty. He merely deals in right and wrong.
        Such is the story of physics professor Larry Gopnik (Mr. Stuhlbarg), a man whose spiritual stance is like that of the Schrodinger’s cat. You see, dear reader, if you’ve 0well and truly believed in the existence of somebody, a higher power, it gives you a certain strength and a certain hope. We might often doubt the existence of God, especially in trying times, but most of us would agree that within our heart of hearts that our complaints and criticisms are directed against him, in the hope that he listens. Often, our ego gets the better of us, and we start landing bets with our fate, and often even deliberately spoil ourselves just to show that we do not care. Yet we seek signs everywhere. We place bets everywhere, on every little object. Because we believe he exists, and that belief is a strength. That no matter what happens, somebody is looking.
        Larry, I believe, is another such man, who hopes. He doesn’t cross himself against God in anger. Neither does he dismiss him in utter disdain, say like Daniel Plainview, who I suspect doesn’t even care. Nor is he unfortunate like, say the narrator in Fight Club, who doesn’t even know if God is bothered about him. Come of think of it, I believe being fortunate or unfortunate in this regard is completely a matter of your opinion, dear reader. I don’t know, but if you were to choose between God’s ire and God’s complete indifference, what would you choose? You tell me. Larry though, knows he has no strength against the forces of nature, and there is not a single punishment he faces that is a result of his actions. Upto the final moments, Prof. Larry Gopnik does nothing, save receive, and receive. Receive, in all forms, and all shapes, and all sizes. His wife is in love with a slimy widower. A student in his class has stealthily slipped a envelope full of cash, and now is blackmailing him in return for a passing grade in physics. The slimy widower, Sy Ableman (Mr. Melamed) intends to move into his house, and they suggest/insist that the right thing for Larry to do is to move out into the nearest motel. His brother has moved into the house, and doesn’t show any signs of leaving anytime soon. His tenure is up for review, and somebody has been sending letters to the committee with content directed against him.
        There are plenty more issues, little ones and big ones, funny and sad, and watching Larry’s sweet face your heart breaks. The Coens construct the film as a comedy, and I didn’t laugh one bit. That would be because of the silliness of their comic tone, where they believe if you kick the clown in the posterior it automatically becomes eligible for laughs. The one thing I have learnt at movies, and on television is that people become funny when we know them better, and we like them. Chaplin was never funny, he was just a bum. Buster Keaton made me laugh, because I always cared for the little man. The A rule to being funny is be likable. Otherwise, you come out as annoying. There are several characters that the Coens reduce to mere caricatures, like for instance the hugely annoying Sy Ableman (which he is supposed to be, and not funny) and the tenure committee professor, and you do not laugh. You merely look at their amateurish jabs at being funny. I was reminded of those silly shows on Sony television where unemployed actors combine in teams to be funny, and other unemployed actors try their best to laugh. There was a time when I would want to throw something in the general direction of the television. No I just change the channel, and if the remote control is not in my hand, move out of the room. So, A Serious Man, is a profoundly spiritual film which the Coens spoil to no end. I wonder how beautiful a film Tarkovsky might have made out of it.
        So I say let us forget who made this film. Sometimes there are subjects that are so close to our existence that they have been touched and pondered over is itself a cause of celebration. A Serious Man, despite itself, is a film that is close to my heart. Troubles start piling on Larry. I feel sad. This is not a bad man, this is just a sad man getting sadder. Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant had a similar situation for its protagonist, but one feels there is fate at work there. Here it is the almighty himself pushing the buttons. And that almighty certainly wouldn’t look like Morgan Freeman. Lee Marvin maybe.
        There are two anecdotes in A Serious Man, one told in first person, and one narrated, and both of them serve as essential clues to the meaning of the film. And the meaning is that there might be no meaning. A Serious Man, much like life itself, doesn’t provide us anything to hold onto. Although the film itself isn’t worthy of its profound subject, it has several instances where it does make worthy jabs. As the credits roll, the tale’s of Larry Gopnik and his son are brilliantly inter-cut. His son is up for his bar mitzvah. Larry might be up for his, in the eyes of God. His son has it easy because it is just a formality. Larry has his task cut out, and you should see how the path gets twisted with every turn. The Coens frame it all precisely but it is their impulse to reduce their characterization to caricaturi-zation that lets them down. You should see the scene as Larry looks around his neighborhood from his rooftop.
        And then there is the last moments. All of a sudden everything starts turning well for Larry. His wife apologizes to him. Things start getting pinker. Reader, here I ask you. How many times does it happen that we turn so complacent in our times of happiness. We are people of faith, and when times are bad, we stay good because we believe somebody’s watching. But happiness and sudden ecstasy works in strange ways, and hits us back in stranger ways. When you arrive at the final moment you shall realize about one of the film’s most brilliant accomplishments that happen in the very early frames. You notice that, but you wouldn’t remember. Neither does Larry. Neither do we. You see, God always has an ace, and if we are bad, he can always pull it out of the hole. Larry doesn’t do anything wrong, but in his moment of ecstasy, he lets the guard down. And the lightning strikes, with the almighty’s complete wrath. It is a humbling moment. Seldom does that happen at the movies.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Don't you think that all the Coen's truly, madly and deeply wanted was to destroy your so called Spiritual Experience.

Just Another Film Buff said...

The Coens are back with their high school philosophy and hip nihilism, trying to pass off melodrama as examination of fate. The wafer thin moral conflict is all too blown up. The best thing in ASM is that they didn't try to put up a serious face to it like they did in NCFOM. And that made the film a very amusing watch for me, despite the film's childish attempts to study the human condition. I almost want to call the Coens "Wannabe Woody Allens"

man in the iron mask said...

Srikanth, how about "wannabe Kubricks"?
And really, I often want to throw up on one of those Coen movies. Often the most annoying thing in life is so meet somebody who thinks he is smarter than he actually is.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Satish,

I seriously want to believe I'm overlooking something in the film here. What's there to love it so much? May be all the humour went over my head, as it often does with the Coens, but the philosophy was so one-note. That's why I wanted to compare them with Woody, who has "made" A SERIOUS MAN many times in the past, with great results.

Very troubling, very troubling..

man in the iron mask said...

No no no, good man. You are not overlooking anything.
That is what I ask everybody. What is there to love or be amused in this film? How is THIS supposed to be funny? This film is annoying. For that matter, most of the Coens' stuff is. Woody Allen sure as hell did this many times.
You know, even Kubrick did this too. In say, Barry Lyndon. But the Coens annoy me with their smugness. And really, they are just good technicians. They should stick to editing other people's movies. Not make any themselves. They ruin the subject completely, and as you, hammer and hammer one single note to death.

You know, I might be more annoyed than you. That is because this sort of a subject matter is so close to my heart.

Amar said...

In any of the comedy movies ever made, how do situations unfold? For that matter, how does the comedy work in any form of art? As you have already put, there is one likable character. Writer/Director makes his life upside down by creating several issues in his life or creating any new situation which will bring him down.

Now, consider this man as a deeply religious and a serious man like the protagonist of this movie. I think he is already cursed as described in the outset of movie. Now, how will this man react to such adverse conditions? Does the summary of this movie look like a fun riot?

I am not sure whether we can compare our life and teachings with his. He takes some time to understand that God has no answer for his questions. He has no option but to continue with his life and accepts his misery without any complain. This is a black comedy; and I am certain it is one of the best among them.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand your hate for the Coen's. ASM is not that horrible.

Ab Van said...

Coens have, of late, created characters (meticulously, mind you) which are consistently distant from the audience. That is my problem with them (and this movie)...I can't relate to anyone in this movie. Anyone at all.

Secondly, call me old school, but I much much prefer movies which have a distinct beginning, distinct confrontation and a distinct end.

Case in point: NCFOM. It could've been a masterpiece had they modified the resolution to something substantial (and not some irrelevant rant about two dreams)

But having said all that I ain't a Coen basher/hater. I love the way they started.... Miller's Crossing, Blood Simple, Lebowski, Barton Fink (and to an extent, Fargo) were all beautiful movies... Just seems like they've lost their way a bit recently.

Amar said...

Could you predict this year's Oscar Winners along with their comparison with your fav ones?

Trippman said...

I found Sy Ableman funny. "Letting it breathe, most important". LOOOLL!! Come on! "I seriously fucked her!" Get it? Because he's a serious man, so he "seriously" does everything! Gold! Well, at least silver.

Siddhant Lahiri said...

This is the best film of 2009... The fact that you fail to notice it is just sad.

The Coens use everything at their disposal, from pitch-perfect performances (Forget Bridges, it ought to have been Stuhlberg this year), evocative atmosphere, brilliantly framed scenes and that odd yet perfect Jefferson Airplane track to pose a 'Schroedinger's Cat' experiment on the existence of God, while ostentatiously retelling the Book of Job.

Dark humour, grey, three dimensional characters and no easy answers are a part of their nihilistic message about the sheer meaningless of life- and you should never let your own ideology restrict you from appreciating the brilliance and the craft with which these two artists convey it through entertainment.