Friday, February 12, 2010

A Serious Man: Grade A


A Serious Man (2009)

Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolf, Sari Lennick; Writer-Directors Ethan and Joel Cohen.

Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor at a Midwestern university, and a 1960’s Jewish nebbish. He lives in a Levittown-like suburb (sets and costumes are absolutely nailed in this film), with his out-of-control teenage kids and wife who wants a divorce.

The wife and her paramour (Melamed) try to be “adult” about confronting the cuckolded husband by suggesting ever so kindly that he might be “more comfortable” if he moved out to the Jolly Roger Motel. The unctuous pseudo-caring of the lovers' “advice” is squirm-in-your-seat funny and a masterpiece of acting and directing.

Numerous other troubles, large and small, befall the professor, who seeks advice from rabbis and lawyers, each of whom is a brilliant parody. There is no plot, just a documentary of this Job-like man’s pathetic life.

The opening scene, which seems disconnected at first, is in retrospect, the key to this funny but dark satirical essay on Jewish existentialism. The opener says that in “the old days” God was present to us and we knew what things meant and we knew how to act. The rules were simple. Today, God does not seem present in life and nobody knows what anything means. It is a scathing commentary on modern life, not just Jewish life, but in this case, life in the Jewish tradition.

The writing is flawless. The acting is utterly gripping by just about every character, and that’s a tribute also to the directors. I was put off a bit by the main character’s extreme passivity, which was frustratingly unrealistic, but it was designed to highlight the world around him, not him as an individual, so it works. Sixties and seventies rock music (featuring Grace Slick) mixed with some lovely ceremonial cant, was excellent. It is another masterpiece from the Cohen brothers.

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