Thursday, January 06, 2011

Film Notes: A Serious Man

The Coen brothers have achieved the unusual status of defining their films, even when they are packed with Hollywood A-listers. O Brother, Where Art Thou..? is never referred to as a 'George-Clooney movie' it is unquestionably a 'Coen-brothers film'.

A Serious Man is the Coen's latest beautifully crafted assault on the vagaries and absurdities of life. Larry Gopnik is an ordinary man, who is at the centre of a web of calamities (a oft-repeated Coen theme). Whereas in other Coen movies where a single error of judgement unleashes a torrent of unforseen circumstances, Gopnik's woes are (apparently) caused by a curse brought on them by an ancestor. These disaster's many of which are darkly and ironically humorous, wash over Gopnik in waves of severity, only made worse by interludes of futile optimism.

The Coen's set their woeful tale in a Jewish suburban community in 1960s America - in fact almost in their own childhoods. Not only that, but many critics have sought to parallel Gopnik with the character of Job in the Hebrew Bible. In the Biblical epic Job's world crumbles around him, while three friends offer him useless pious-sounding advice. Job seeks to understand the events in his life from within his own experience - whereas the reader is allowed to know the secret kept from him - that the calamities he faces are all part of some heavenly negotiation which have little to do with his shortcomings. The narrative concludes when Job encounters God speaking in a storm. Larry Gopnik has no knowledge of the ancient curse that blights his life, he too receives useless advice from a string of Rabbi's, that do nothing to help him understand his plight, still less alter it. Strangely, the film ends with a brewing storm thundering towards the camera. However - whereas the Biblical writer takes the story to a conclusion in which Job is given new perspective but no answers, the Coens have a long track record of loving endings even more frustratingly open than even this!

Some critics have hailed this as the Coen's finest work. Others have called it weak, dull and pointless. Part of that is undoubtedly the extent to which the reviewer gets the cultural context in which the story is set. As it consists of the 60s (I wasn't there - not even in the sense of having forgotten it), America (I've only visited) and Jewish (I'm not that either); there were a lot of references and even words that I didn't recognise. Like all the Coen's work, it is the kind of film which can be infuriating to watch, but which in its many dimensions you find yourself repeatedly mulling over the following day.

The frustrations are many. It's billed as a comedy, (albeit a dark one) but while there are a plenty of smirks, outright laughs are few, and many of them delivered by the Sy Abelman character. The slow-pace of the film is another Coen-trait that works well when delivering tension - such as in Fargo; but when the subject is the futility of life, parts of the film are just too slow. Then there is the ending - with which the Coen's will divide audiences as much as they did with the dangling ending of their morality-tale-meets-blood-fest, No Country for Old Men. But then there are the serious questions the film so profoundly raises about fate, about justice, irony, suffering, meaning and the presence or absence of God.

What most critics don't mention is that while the apocalyptic ending of the film might either be a pre-cursor to a Job-like theophany or simply (and more likely) the next catastrophe to befall the Gopniks; the message of the film owes more to another part of the Hebrew Bible's wisdom canon: Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes the ways of God are as unknowable and mysterious as life is meaningless - in other words the Gopniks. In Ecclesiastes, this mystery and futility carries a coda - of following God and keeping his laws. This film ends with the old Rabbi telling Gopnik's son, “When the truth is found to be lies and all the hope within you dies, then what? … Be a good boy."

This is certainly a flawed film, but is a typical Coen thought-provoker a cut above the cliche's of the standard Hollywood fare.

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