Monday, May 21, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #192 - A Serious Man (2009, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)

          Joel and Ethan Coen have been my favorite filmmakers for almost my entire life, whether I knew it or not. I’m pretty sure that I had watched 1987’s Raising Arizona around fifty times when I was a kid, before I had any interest in who created it. Later, I became obsessed with their nineties films. Fargo, which came out when I was in high school, was a real stepping stone for me as it was probably the reason for my interest in the deeper aspects of filmmaking and for my eventual foray into film as an academic pursuit. And, as cliché as it may be for a male of my age, 1998’s The Big Lebowski is one of my all-time favorite films, if not my all-time favorite. My point is, the Coens have been with me for the better part of my life, seemingly putting out a new film for every phase I’ve gone through. I’ve studied them closely over the years and almost consider them friends that I grew up with. And for this reason alone, I feel qualified to talk about their work.
            Writing about A Serious Man technically breaks the rules of this blog as it’s just under 10 years old. But of all the brothers’ works, I wanted to write about this film the most because it’s not only possibly the most overlooked film in the Coens’ oeuvre, it’s also a film whose subject matter I simultaneously relate to yet know very little about. More on that later. A Serious Man revolves around a Jewish family living in a small Minnesota suburb in 1967, all details that pertain directly to the Coens’ upbringing. So while not strictly autobiographical, these are characters and surroundings that are familiar to the brothers. The always phenomenal Michael Stuhlbarg plays the film’s protagonist Larry Gopnik, a college physics professor whose life begins unraveling when his wife announces she is leaving him for his best friend. This forces him to take a closer look at his life and notice the flaws that he hadn’t previously seen. His son is acting out in Hebrew School, his daughter steals money from him all the time, his unemployed brother-in-law is leeching off of him and he is being simultaneously bribed and blackmailed by one of his students for a more satisfactory grade. When everything goes wrong for Larry, he seeks the guidance of three rabbis to help him get through his crisis and gain a better understanding of his place in the world. The rabbis unfortunately are no help to him, as one lacks the life experience to relate to Larry’s problems, one just offers irrelevant parables that confuse more than they teach and the last one refuses to even see Larry. He begins questioning his faith and wondering whether God is testing him.
            I think part of what makes this film such an underappreciated part of the Coens’ filmography is that, coming out on the heels of Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men just two years prior, A Serious Man is more of a labor of love than their usual undertaking. While the film’s dark humor is pure Coens, it seems like it could be a story that the brothers have had kicking around for years, perhaps dating back to their own days as young Jewish Midwesterners. The cast is made up of largely unknown actors, relatively speaking, and even the way it’s shot seems different than that of their usual cinematography, almost more like a thriller than a comedy. While these facts may deter some from seeing the movie, opting for one of the Coens’ more critically acclaimed titles instead, I think these are reasons to see the film, reasons that A Serious Man might be one of their best. It’s the film that most mirrors what their own lives may have been like, which is fascinating in and of itself. But it also seems like a film they’ve always wanted to create and show the world, and perhaps winning the Best Picture Oscar finally afforded them the creative freedom to do it.
            As I said, I really wanted to write about this film because even though I am not Jewish and do not identify with really any religious customs, I understand reaching crisis mode. As I approach forty next month and have recently gone through a break-up of my own, I’ve done a lot of reflecting recently myself. I do know what it feels like to question whether the universe is testing you or punishing you and the Coens’ have eloquently written this feeling into the character of Larry Gopnik. Larry is just an average guy, trying to be “a serious man” while the world continuously shits on him. Yet he takes it all in stride because of his faith. A Serious Man is also a story about when those limits are tested and where the breaking point is in each person. One doesn’t have to be religious to identify with that.

-         Jonathan Eagle

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