Monday, October 12, 2009
A Serious Man
A Serious Man
When you watch a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, you know you're watching a work of art. Every frame of their films is beautiful and full of detail, even when you're only looking at an actor's face in front of a blank wall. Even their not-so-monumental films are worth seeing, if just for their fascinating experiments with style.
I'm not sure how this film will stack up against the rest of the year - there's still so much to come (and I'm literally counting down the days to Precious) - but A Serious Man feels like the sparse feel of No Country for Old Men paired with the absurdity of Fargo. With the quality of both of those films. Certainly one of the best of the year.
Larry Gopnick doesn't have too complicated a life, but he soon gets the trials of Job heaped on him. It starts with a student who requests that his grade be changed from an F to a passing grade and spirals into you wouldn't even believe what. And just when it seems that things are starting to look up again in the final scene, there are hints at even worse trials to come. Trials we never find out about because the movie fades out and the credits roll, leaving the new trials to our imagination because they could probably be a whole movie unto themselves.
There's a little vignette at the beginning of the film, entirely in Yiddish, that seems to have nothing to do with the rest of it. This is a matter of no small consequence to the many critics who have reviewed this film. For my part, I link it to the first scene with Larry, where he tells his failing student that you have to get the math in order to get the physics. The story about the Schrodinger's cat is anecdotal; if you don't understand the math, you can't understand the physics. I think the Yiddish-language vignette is the math to the rest of the movie's physics. Both seem to be meditations on how we (or more particularly, the Jewish characters of the film) deal with Fortune or the things that befall us.
Speaking of which, yes, this is a pretty heavily Jewish-centric film. But I don't think it's alienating to people who are not Jewish, and I feel that, as a non-Jew, I can state that with some authority. There seemed to be several Jewish people in the audience I saw the film with, and I could observe that they were amused by nuances and layers that people less familiar with that culture likely missed. I'm okay with that, and I think the movie works accepting that that will be the case. These characters, like the characters in most of the Coens' work, speak their own cultural language, but in this case, I think you can understand the "physics" without fully understanding the "math."