Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Serious Man Review (Classic Write-Up)

In many of the films by The Coen Brothers, religion may play a role as one of many themes bouncing around in a certain plotline (such as in works like Hail, Caesar!, O Brother, Where Are Thou? or No Country For Old Men), but for their 2009 feature A Serious Man, religion comes forth as a primary player in the entire endeavor. Specifically, Judaism, the faith the directorial duo were raised in and the one in which our lead character, plays  a crucial role in the ballad of Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), who confides in the religion for answers in his time of immense personal turmoil.

What kind of turmoil is he going through exactly? You name any kind of upheaval, he's likely experiencing it. A failing student is attempting to bribe him, and then attempts more drastic legal action to ensure a good grade. Then there's his wife's sudden divorce, which leaves him and his brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), sleeping at a motel called The Jolly Rodger. Attempting to find solace in his religion via talking with various rabbi's only furthers his frustration at his lot in life, as the figures he chats with fail to provide him with the concrete information and answers Larry desperately desires.

The concept of control plays a heavy part in A Serious Man, with every new facet of Larry's life that spins far out of his control only furthers his desire to find a way to retain some semblance of authority over everything that's going on in his life. Interestingly, Larry doesn't go through malicious means in his attempts to regain sovereignty over his existence, instead having him transition from being merely perturbed at first to being full on upset by the earth-shattering developments occurring around him. It's not like he's suddenly realizing the word is much bigger than he is, it's just that the non-stop assault one big development after another is putting him through an existential crisis that's forcing him to re-examine his entire life.

It's interesting to note that one of the few moments of joy for Larry in this story comes when he smokes marijuana with a neighbor named Mrs. Vivienne Samsky (Amy Landecker). Partaking in this drug sends him briefly into a more lethargic mindset that has him relinquishing control over his surroundings. It's an interesting scene to include since it raises the question of whether it's the events themselves happening around him that he has no control over that are truly bothering Larry, or perhaps it's his desire to adjust everything to his norms that is truly driving him batty. Parallels are also drawn between father and son when it comes to the concept of control via Larry's youngest offspring, Danny (Aaron Wolff) losing control over twenty dollars that he desperately needs to pay off one of his fellow students.

Religion coming into play in this story isn't exactly shocking considering that the very fundamental concept of most religions is giving yourself over to a larger power, something that sharply contrasts with Larry (a lifelong member of Judaism) and his ever-growing desire for some level of authority over his life. Yep, there's a lot on the mind of A Serious Man, and all of those weighty ideas are all handled with extreme care and executed in a most satisfying fashion. The Coen Brothers smartly don't try to offer concrete resolutions to the various problems Larry faces, instead settling for a more realistic approach that offers a mere momentary escape (rather than a permanent solution to) from life's problems.

This is the role that catapulted Michael Stuhlbarg to new heights in his career, resulting in memorable supporting turns from the actor in films like Men In Black 3 and Steve Jobs. Honestly, after seeing his excellent work here, I wish more films would offer him the chance to be a leading man, as he aces his characters appropriately slow-moving character arc in a most gratifying fashion. Richard Kind also leaves an impression as the optimistic fellow Arthur, with a scene where the character breaks down and curses at the heavens at a motel pool being a gut-wrenching moment to witness.

By the time A Serious Man ends in a gutsy conclusion reinforcing how little control anyone in our world really has, it's pretty clear that The Coen Brothers are not here to offer foolproof remedies to the common problems of life. We all must face daunting challenges every single day, many of which we will have very little to no say in. There is no way to be a full master of our own fate, and that's fine. That's life. That's our existence, which can be more of an endurance test than anything else on some days. These extraordinarily talented filmmakers obviously recognize that, and the beauty of A Serious Man is how it conveys that harsh truth through some dark humor, incredible filmmaking and a resolute dedication to putting its lead character through the wringer and then some. You won't find solid answers to big important questions here or in real life, but you will find a seriously great movie in A Serious Man.

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