October 10, 2009

MOVIES: A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)

Things are not going well for Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). One of his students is trying simultaneously to blackmail him and to bribe him in hopes of getting a better grade; his 12-year-old son is more interested in pot and the Jefferson Airplane than in his upcoming bar mitzvah; the Columbia Record Club is dunning him for records he swears he didn't buy; his depressed brother (Richard Kind) has moved in and has no interest in finding a job or an apartment. So it's less of a shock that it should be when Larry's wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), announces that she wants a divorce. (Her new boyfriend, Sy, is played by Fred Melamed in the movie's best performance; Sy is the sort of "let's all be adults" guy whose calm drone and refusal to get upset about anything are his most vicious weapons.)

A Serious Man is as bleak and unhopeful a comedy as you'll ever see. As one misery after another is heaped upon poor Larry Gopnik, it begins to feel like a cosmic variation on the Coens' No Country for Old Men, with God playing the Anton Chigurh role. That is, if there even is a God, which is a question that the Coens leave very much up for grabs. One of the rabbis Larry turns to for spiritual guidance tells him a long shaggy-dog story that ends with the punchline "Who cares?," which seems to be the central question of the movie; the answer, more often than not, is "nobody."

The Coens get more and more nihilistic with every movie, more and more convinced that the universe is cruel and forbidding, and that we are powerless to control it. A Serious Man feels to me almost like the final (and angriest) installment of a trilogy. No Country for Old Men told us that there is evil in the world, and you can't stop it; Burn Before Reading simply replaced "evil" with "stupidity." A Serious Man offers even less hope: There is suffering in the world, and not only can't you stop it, but if you try, you're only going to piss God off and make things worse.

I admire the craftsmanship of the movie -- Roger Deakins' cinematography is fine, and the movie's recreation of 60s suburbia is impeccable -- and the performances are consistently good. But it's so relentlessly bleak a vision of the world that it's difficult to enjoy, and the choice to make it a comedy is disconcerting; the story of Job isn't meant to be a sitcom.

No comments: