Thursday, October 29, 2009

A SERIOUS MAN

After those cross-cutting moments of dread that roll-up on father and son at the end of A Serious Man, the dialogue that lingered with me the most was that which was spookily spoken by Barry Corbin in No Country For Old Men: "You can't stop what's coming." I suppose that flavor of throwing-up-your-arms inevitability is something that could be attributed to the Cinema de Coen as a whole, but after so much preventative hand-wringing by A Serious Man's protagonist, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), it really stung to see him get thumped on the nose right before the curtains closed. Sure, on the surface, A Serious Man is advocating a "stop and smell the roses" philosophy but, like the endearing goofball antics of Burn After Reading, that's just the lubricant to get the larger ideas inside of you.

So, what does it all mean? (The movie, that is.) A Serious Man is the Coen's headiest film to date, and I'm not just saying that because it's been rattling around my noggin for days. There are many interpretive avenues to travel down: there's the one that obsesses over the use of Surrealistic Pillow; the Jewish one; the one about logic & probability. But, for me, it seems that the domestic issues of family and marriage that exist in A Serious Man have never been so vivid in a film of the Coens since Raising Arizona. The Gopniks are a two kids/two car family with the makings of a clan that might just live in the same subdivision as Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper. Larry's son signed up for the Columbia record club, his daughter wants in the bathroom, and his wife wants a divorce. None of this is his fault, of course ("I didn't do anything", he repeats). But as Larry reprimands a Korean student of his by referencing the laws of action and consequence, we know that he's partly at fault for it all.

Thankfully, we're not back in the braindead Sam Mendes/Alan Ball suburban warfare territory here. No. As the Coens accentuated the close living quarters of H.I. and Edwina's trailer in Raising Arizona to reflect the good-Earth nature of those characters, so too here does the Gopniks's house reflect a protective nature that Larry steadfastly strives to provide. Sure, Larry can come off as a sheepish lion when he lets another man talk him out of his own house, or when he backs down from a neighbor who is planning to encroach onto his property, but Larry's motivations are his kids and his home. This is evident in the way he let's himself get pinballed around by his synagogue's three elusive rabbis for the endgame benefit of finding a pathway to stability for his family.

But the dark horse in this whole scenario is The Gopnik Family's relative, Uncle Arthur (bravely played by Richard Kind). Introduced to us early as a comedic foil - the reason Larry's daughter can't get in the bathroom is because Arthur is constantly inside, draining his sebaceous cyst - Arthur is, in many ways, at the heart of A Serious Man. In fact, he drives the climactic scene between him and Larry that takes place at an empty motel pool (drained, just like his cyst). Larry has been so consumed by the griping and gritting and grinding away of his own misfortunes, that he never took a breather to step back and gain perspective. Especially from the perspective of Arthur. Yes, Larry admires the fact that Arthur "never complains" but, in truth, Arthur is really a specimen that's at the the butt-end of life's most appealing physical qualities. He's hairy in gross places, flabby, has terrible posture, dumpy, and has an ugly face. Thus, he's an extreme outcast, envious of Larry's ability to create a family. But when Arthur confesses this to Larry point blank, it goes over his head. He's unawakened.

Of course, Larry may still be too distracted by the way his rival, Sy Abelman, has moved in on his wife. Like Arthur, Sy was not blessed with the most attractive of features, but he exudes a convincing spiritual confidence that makes up for it. Subconsciously, Larry admires him. It's not because Sy is able to catch the attention of his wife, so much, but that Sy is able to ride on such a calm wave of life. He walks and talks and maneuvers like he's figured it all out. Revealed in a dream, Sy is the ideal of "a serious man" in Larry's mind. Forget all that math and physics mumbo jumbo that Larry throws up on his classroom chalkboard like territorial gang graffiti, because Sy's already the owner to life's answers. He even slams Larry's head up against the chalkboard for good measure. Cuz, really, what's Schrodinger's cat gonna do for you once the doctor calls with bad news?

23 comments:

Greg said...

Didn't read your review as I still haven't seen it. Hopefully sometime next week and I'm really looking forward to it.

Greg said...

What I meant was that I like to go into new movies pretty cold. If I find out stuff it won't kill me but I prefer to be completely in the dark about the movie beforehand, so that's why I didn't read your review.

Fox said...

Greg-

Thanks for splitting that into two comments so it looks I got... two comments! :)

I was actually toying with the idea of picking A Serious Man for my next go round of TOERIFC. I figure it will be on DVD by the time that comes around. I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on it.

Jason Bellamy said...

OK. So it's comment No. 4 ...

I agree with much of this, including that there's so much going on here -- or at least so much that might be going on -- that it rattles around in the brain. (I've seen it twice now but I haven't written a review yet -- as much because I don't know where to start as because I've been to busy to sit down and start it.)

Anyway ... Like I said, I agree with most of it, but I'm not sure that I agree that the film advocates a "stop and smell the roses" philosophy or that Larry admires Sy.

Both of my objections are linked in this way: Prior to this string of misfortune, Larry likes his life. That's why he's willing to consider going right back to it, even though his marriage wasn't great, even though his wife was going to leave him for Sy. I think that, yes, the film looks down on Larry for not wanting to do anything, for wanting to drift around life rather than engaging with it, but I'm not sure that's the same thing as advocating that we "stop and smell the roses," and I'm not sure that means Larry admires Sy (I didn't see that). But maybe I'm being too nitpicky; we might agree in spirit on this one but just not in terminology.

Hokahey said...

After reading the rave review of this film in Entertainment Weekly - I have just got back from seeing the film - and I've read your post above - and A Serious Man might well be about the themes you discuss, but I'm feeling right now that the whole experience didn't do much for me.

There were points during the film when I wanted it to end. Somehow, it almost seemed like an imitation of an older Woody Allen movie; the character of Larry seemed so Woody Allen. And the hyperbolic Jewish caricatures are also so Woody Allenesque.

At times it seemed a bit like Synecdoche New York - aggravatingly inscrutable.

Much of the time, it seemed very trite - the meaning of life is that there is no meaning. I'm assuming the Coens knew that countless films have explored this notion ad nauseam but they just wanted to have their turn.

On a positive note, once the film was over, I realized that the part I liked the best was the introduction - the little Yiddish movie-within-the-movie. Loved the wife! She was my favorite character in the whole movie. Loved the Yiddish - some words and idioms are very close to Bavarian German - "a bissel Suppe" - which I grew up hearing.

This may be the Coen brothers' personal little film that evokes many of their boyhood memories growing up Jewish in Minnesota - and they are welcome to their personal little filmmaking experience - but it didn't do much for me.

Fox said...

Jason-

I think your points are good ones. I'm very open to opening new doors on this movie, b/c it really was a juicy one to think about.

You're right that saying that Larry "admires" Sy is going too far, it's just I keep thinking about that dream sequences a lot... the one where Sy tells him he's "a serious man". I read it as Larry seeing him that way (since it was his dream), but it could just as well be Larry thinking that Sy thinks of himself that way.

As far as Larry "stopping to smell the roses" or being more "engaging", I'm out on that one as well. I'm willing to yield on the "...roses" thing, but I'm not so sure about the Coens saying that Larry needs to be more proactive with his life. I think they quietly celebrate what makes up ordinary living, that you don't need to worry about being spectacular in order to be a good man or live a good life.

But then I think of the ending...

Fox said...

Hokahey-

Interesting thoughts. Especially the one about A Serious Man reminding you of Synecdoche, New York. I can see that, but the problem you mentioned you had with ASM - wanting it to end - was one I had with Synecdoche, New York.

You also mention the Jewish caricatures. I didn't see that so much, but I will say that the three rabbis motif didn't totally work for me. I especially felt let down by the final confrontation between Larry's son and Marshak.

That being said, I really like this film. I've mentioned it here in the past, but I've had a weird experience with the Coens work. I'm not so hot on a lot of films people cherish, but I really like their last two films a lot. Of course, this could just mean that I need to revisit some of their older films again.

Oh, and lastly. I don't see that the film is saying "the meaning of life is that there is no meaning". I don't think the Coens are that kind of cynical. Maybe it will come to me after seeing it again, but I don't think A Serious Man is on the existential ground that others are seeing it on.

Craig said...

I agree, lots of avenues to explore in this movie. One in particular: Sy. You're right, Fox, that Larry initially sorta admires or envies Sy as the definition of a "serious man." But I think that changes later when it's strongly implied that Sy was the one who wrote the hostile anonymous emails to Larry's tenure board. It's one thing to take his wife, another for Sy to take him down on something in which he has no personal stake. So I think the notion of a serious man is shown to be false in Sy's case. The man's got issues beneath the facade.

I'd have guessed Fox would hate this movie and Hokahey would love it. Shows to go ya!

Craig said...

Not emails, duh. Letters. Stray anachronistic thought there.

Hokahey said...

"I'd have guessed Fox would hate this movie and Hokahey would love it. Shows to go ya!"

Ah, Craig, thanks for the observation; I'm glad I remain an enigma. As my wife has said to me over the past many years, "You always surprise me."

bill r. said...

I also didn't read your review, or any of the comments (outside of Greg's), because I'm seeing it this weekend. Can't wait.

RC said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this - I'm really curious how this film plays out over time in the Coen bros. cannon - I feel like the sound of the overall reception has not yet been heard.

Anonymous said...

thebadbreathreport -
the bad breath report -
thedietsolutionprogram -
the diet solution program -
the power pause -
tmj help -
tonsil stones remedies -
top secret fat loss secret -
turbulence training -
twitter rockstar -
uncle sams money -
underground hypnosis -
vincedelmontefitness -
vince del monte fitness -
warcraft millionaire -
warcraft wealth -
warp speed fat loss -
webcomp analyst -
wedding speech 4u -
win back love -
your software website -
zox pro -
zygor guides -
500 love making tips -
acid alkaline diet -
acne no more -
advanced defrag -
adware alert -
adware bot -
affiliate elite -
anti spyware -
anti spyware bot -
article bully -
art of approaching -

Anonymous said...

auto pilot profits -
bbq book -
blogging in action -
body building revealed -
burnthefat -
burn the fat -
carb rotation diet -
chopper tattoo -
conversationalhypnosis -
conversational hypnosis -
cure for tinnitus -
debt free in three -
driver checker -
duplicate file cleaner -
earth4energy -
earth 4 energy -
easy member pro -
easy tv soft -
eatstopeat -
eat stop eat -
end your tinnitus -
fap winner -
fat burning furnace -
fatloss4idiots -
fat loss 4 idiots -
final sync -
final uninstaller -
firewall gold -
fitness model program -
fit yummy yummy -
flatten your abs -
forex auto money -
forex auto pilot -
forex confidante -

Anonymous said...

game tester guide -
governmentregistry -
government registry -
healthy urban kitchen -
higher faster sports -
homebrew installer -
homemadeenergy -
home made energy -
i am big brother -
instant profit machine -
i want a teaching job -
joyful tomato -
lose man boobs -
lower body make over -
macro virus -
magic of making up -
make money taking surveys -
malware bot -
maternityacupressure -
maternity acupressure -
meet your sweet -
moles warts removal -
money siphon system -
muscle gaining secrets -
my airfare secrets -
my miracle loans -
my out of control teen -
natural cancer treatments -
ovarian cyst cures -
pc optimizer pro -
piano for all -
prevent sweating -
privacy control -
publicrecordspro -

Anonymous said...

public records pro -
pvp bible -
quick article pro -
quit smoking today -
reg defense -
reg genie -
registry easy -
registry genius -
registry smart -
registry winner -
registry winner download -
reg tool -
relationship headquarters -
reverse mobile -
richard mackenzie direct -
rocket japanese -
rotator cuff training -
satellite tv pc master -
secrets book -
spy no more -
spyware cease -
survey scout -
the bad breath report -
thedietsolutionprogram -
the diet solution program -
the guru assassin -
the power pause -
tmj help -
tonsil stones remedies -
turbulence training -
two minute profits -
vincedelmontefitness -
vince del monte fitness -
warp speed fat loss -

Anonymous said...

web traffic machines -
wedding speech 4u -
wind plans -
xp repair pro -
your fun business -
zygor guides -
500 love making tips -
acid alkaline diet -
acne no more -
advanced defrag -
anti spyware bot -
art of approaching -
banish tinnitus -
beat eczema -
blood pressure normalized -
burnthefat -
burn the fat -
conversationalhypnosis -
conversational hypnosis -
cpa arbitrage -
creative date ideas -
debt free in three -
digital background -
dirty talking guide -
discus fish secrets -
duplicate file cleaner -
dw insider -
earth4energy -
earth 4 energy -
easy tv soft -
easy web video -
eatstopeat -
eat stop eat -
end your tinnitus -

Anonymous said...

web traffic machines -
wedding speech 4u -
wind plans -
xp repair pro -
your fun business -
zygor guides -
500 love making tips -
acid alkaline diet -
acne no more -
advanced defrag -
anti spyware bot -
art of approaching -
banish tinnitus -
beat eczema -
blood pressure normalized -
burnthefat -
burn the fat -
conversationalhypnosis -
conversational hypnosis -
cpa arbitrage -
creative date ideas -
debt free in three -
digital background -
dirty talking guide -
discus fish secrets -
duplicate file cleaner -
dw insider -
earth4energy -
earth 4 energy -
easy tv soft -
easy web video -
eatstopeat -
eat stop eat -
end your tinnitus -

Anonymous said...

error doctor -
evidence smart -
fap winner -
fat burning furnace -
fat loss 4 idiots -
final sync -
final uninstaller -
firewall gold -
fitness model program -
fit over 40 -
fit yummy yummy -
flatten your abs -
forex auto pilot -
gain opinion -
gold secrets -
government records -
governmentregistry -
government registry -
green diy energy -
healthy urban kitchen -
highest pay surveys -
holo think -
homemadeenergy -
home made energy -
i want a teaching job -
joyful tomato -
keyword elite -
learn photoshop videos -
lmt forex formula -
lower body make over -
macro virus -
malware bot -
maternityacupressure -
maternity acupressure -

Anonymous said...

meet your sweet -
microcap millionaires -
moles warts removal -
money siphon system -
muscle gaining secrets -
my list strategy -
my phone riches -
natural cancer treatments -
online tv pc -
panic away -
pdf creator -
peel away ads -
pips leader -
ppc web spy -
prevent sweating -
privacy control -
publicrecordspro -
public records pro -
questions for couples -
quick article pro -
quick paid surveys -
quit smoking today -
reg defense -
registry winner -
reg tool -
reverse mobile -
richard mackenzie direct -
rocket german -
rotator cuff training -
rss feeds submit -
satellite pc box -
save the marriage -
spy no more -
spyware stop -

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone.

I really appreciate this website, I'll be back soon!
Tell me what you think of my writings on hypnosis!

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone! I'm originally from London but am living in Berlin at the moment.
Gotta like this forum!


____________________________________
[url=http://stephetteh.wordpress.com/]Barrater is my life[/url]

watch movies online said...

A Serious Man is as great a film as the Coen Brothers have made