Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Serious Man

A Serious Man is seriously dark, seriously surreal, seriously twisted. The Coen Brothers film it reminds me most of is Barton Fink. Certainly, Larry Gropnick, protagonist of A Serious Man shares similar obstacles as Barton Fink. But whereas Fink suffered a severe case of writer's block, Gropnick is blocked by the stagnation and stultification of suburbia.

Gropnick is living the so-called American dream: married, two kids, up for tenure. But his wife announces she wants a divorce, his brother is a permanent fixture on the living room couch, and his tenure is being sabotaged by anonymous letter writer as well as a disgruntled student who simultaneously attempts to bribe and blackmail Gropnick into giving him a passing grade.

The stuck between a rock and hard place situation that Gropnick finds himself in with his student pretty much defines his life. Like a fly caught in spider web, Gropnick finds himself struggling unsuccessfully against an seemingly unceasing series of setbacks. Billed as a "comedy," the humor in A Serious Man is exceeding dark and painful. We laugh--but mainly it's a sense of relief that no matter how bad our own lives are, our troubles pale in comparison to the misfortunes of that poor putz, Gropnick, who desperately needs Anton Chigurh to put him out of his misery...

A Serious Man has its moments. Most of the cast, including Michael Stuhlbarg as the entirely luckless Larry, are fairly unknown. You might recognize a few characters: Richard Kind (Spin City, Mad about You) as Larry's even unluckier brother Arthur, Simon Helberg (Big Bang Theory) as Rabbi Scott, Goerge Wyner (too many credits to mention) as Rabbi Nachtner and Adam Arkin as the divorce lawyer. My favorite character was dry and deadpan Mrs. Samsky: Larry's nude-sunbathing, pot-smoking next door neighbor played exquisitely by Amy Landecker.

Although this is far from my favorite Coen Brothers flick, it is definitely classic Coen Brothers in its sensibilities. The story is book-ended between a Yiddish fable and an ambiguous ending that leaves both its Job-like protagonist and audience to grapple with the messy and unfinished business that is life. As Larry's student's father says to him, "Please accept the mystery." And perhaps that is what the Coen brothers are saying to us with this film about life.

Please accept the mystery. You may not understand the beginning. Or the ending. Or anything that comes between. But that's okay.

It's life. It is what it is.

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