November 2, 2009

Review: Accept the Mystery of 'A Serious Man'

"When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies, don't you want somebody to love?"

The Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski), Joel and Ethan, have crafted an original tale inspired by their Jewish upbringing in late 1960s Minnesota with A Serious Man. Again, they have created a completely off-putting, strange, unconventional, stark work that is dryly hilarious and simultaneously deeply "serious".

The film starts off with a prologue that I gather is a Jewish fable of evil and death of some sort. The moral and consequence of which is made deliberately ambiguous in fine Coen fashion. What follows is a slow, deliberate, contemplative story with tons of quirky jokes and humour the Coens are known for. A Serious Man, apart from being serious, has a quirky sensibility that should crumble in other, less steady hands, but the Coens control every aspect of the storytelling in an intriguing, controlled manner.

Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Larry Gobnik, a good, kind, decent, religious man. His loved ones, friends, colleagues, and those around him seem to be constantly undermining him despite Larry's best efforts. He is met with the worst kind of luck as side characters and neighbours come into his life for no other reason than to complicate matters and make things more troublesome for poor Larry. His struggles show the futility of following the rules of his surroundings.

Larry comes off as rather meek but well meaning. He is certainly not great in any fashion as great men either make the rules or break them. Larry does neither; only when he veers off his path do things start to slightly go his way but not entirely and in complicated ways. It shows the fallacy of being decent, normal, and reasonable in the realm of the mundane. Larry learns that happiness is full of all kinds of compromises.

Life is full of the mundane worries and struggles of daily living and faith can be futile against these but does provide a structure of comfort and support. New troubles are always oncoming and past struggles depart. Fighting against life and responsibility is useless. Being serious all the time is a prescription for unhappiness. You make your own luck.

Although the film may be decidedly Jewish in its themes, the story is universal. We all find our own meaning in life but we cannot let this meaning consume us. The joys and aims of life rest in the same struggles we deal with, the everyday. Enjoy the everyday and all its hardship somehow and you will prosper. The meaning is where you find it. Do not go searching too hard for it. No one knows anything more than you do. Everyone is full of the same bullshit. Just as Larry Gobnik realizes the fallacies and joys of his life, he is met with new problems as his old ones fade away. We all must move on. Larry is only slightly rewarded when he gives in a little. Too much and he will be worse off. Characters who abandon seriousness and reason are punished.

As a goy, versed in Jewish history but unfamiliar with its deeper culture and heritage, I found aspects of the story distant and unclear but still very engrossing and fascinating. I can only imagine being Jewish would deeply enhance watching the film. The film is oddly hilarious in its seriousness and all its deadpan. The Coens use irony deliciously in situations that never tear the momentum of the film but propel the narrative forward.

Themes of rebellion and defiance are slyly explored through the onset and birth of counterculture in middle America. Larry is the ultimate straight man in a world of chaos. The sheer volume of ideas and insight within the film is incredible. A Serious Man is a rather mature, and well, serious work from two masters of cinema, so "please, accept the mystery."

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