Sunday, 22 November 2009
REVIEW: A Serious Man
The Book of Job is where various religious texts answer the question of 'Well if God exists, why does so much bad stuff happen to me?'. And its answer is basically you should just shut up and take it, because God has a plan for everything. You don't need to understand it, you just need to know that its there. A Serious Man relocates the story of Job to a 60's Jewish suburb, and sees Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) lose everything he holds dear, but rather then the grand Guignol bloodbath of the Biblical version, here Larry loses all of his societal comforts. The break-up of his marriage, the separation from him and his kids, his loser brother who he is powerless to save from himself, the loss of financial security, of career expectation, of moral assuredness and so many more things. Its almost that everything that allows him to exist comfortably in his time and place is removed, leaving him existentially and ideologically lost.
This by and large is quite heavy shit for a Coen brothers movie, with the two being primarily known for their skewed take on the thriller genre. But this is a very philosophical movie, and you get the sense its also a very personal one. The closest they've got to this kind of territory before is probably Barton Fink, and in a way these movies are siblings. Whereas Barton Fink revolves around a crisis of creativity, this is a crisis of faith and ideology. Its not that he loses his belief, but rather works endlessly to understand his predicament through his belief. He wants to find answers and solace in it, but its simply not their to find. To paraphrase the quote at the beginning of the film, If you don't take what happens to you with simplicity, then you will destroy yourself with curiosity. Its intriguing stuff, and one of the most intellectually rich films I've seen in a while, dealing with the ramifications of God's place in a profoundly rational mind. I'm an atheist myself, but its pleasing to see the issue religion dealt with in a way that supersedes simple black and white understanding.
This film also contains a terrific and hopefully career making performance from Michael Stuhlbarg, who gives such a sublime performance of frustration and disillusionment I can't praise it enough. It must be quite difficult to go from being a relative unknown to the lead in a Coen brothers movie, but Stuhlbarg is so good you'd never know it, all well-meaning politeness that life keeps slamming into a brick wall. He also provides a way into the film, which otherwise could have been quite impenetrable in its severe uniqueness. Incidentally, this may be the single most Jewish film of the year, and while some have said that it relies on ethnic caricatures, I don't think that's quite true. Well at least not enough to detract from the film anyway. The rest of the obscure cast all do their job well, with Richard Kind and Fred Melamed being particularly successful as the loser brother and wife-stealing serene Jerk-off respectively.
The Coens voice and world view have in many ways never been better expressed then in this film, and while they may have made better films, I would say they've made probably none as meaningful. Its a testament to their talent that they kind make a low-key film as good as this, and with a central performance to match the quality of the writing, this is almost destined to be this year's forgotten gem. Sure, the ending will frustrate and I'm not going to apologize for it, it annoyed me too, but its a film that succeeds in tackling philosophic and theological issues without being a coma-inducing bore is going to do well in my book, and this is a film that I won't forget in a long time. Proof to show that No Country For Old Men wasn't just a blip in the Coen brothers decline, and now lets hope their next film isnt another Burn After Reading.