Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Serious Man

No Jews were harmed during the making of this film.

Left to the end of the credits, this little disclaimer speaks volumes about both the subject matter and tone of A Serious Man. Indeed the Coen brothers’ latest film feels like an elaborate in-joke, born of their own Jewish upbringing and therefore fairly exclusive for any gentiles in the audience.

From the opening bizarre, Yiddish fable, A Serious Man unfolds into a damning morality play. It’s 1976 in Midwest USA and physics professor Larry Gopnik’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) life is about to implode. His dogmatic wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for Sy Albeman (Fred Melamed), a man who sounds like the slimiest of talkback radio hosts. Larry’s teenage kids are apathetic to the point of tyrannical, and his useless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is epitomised by the constant draining of his sebaceous cyst. Meanwhile Larry is on tenterhooks waiting to receive tenure, with university life further stressed by a disgruntled South Korean student seeking a passing grade.

Just how Larry survives such a systematic undoing makes the film in equal parts unsettling, pointed and hilarious. The Coen brothers’ precision – written and visual – is remarkable, and yet the film is so unapologetically self-reflexive and autobiographical that it tends towards indulgent. Moreover the Coens are infamous for their physical and psychological (mis)treatment of characters. And this combination makes for an almost alienating viewing experience, though one that will probably develop further resonance (like most Coen brothers’ films) upon repeated viewing.

Nothing is sacred in A Serious Man: the Coen brothers gleefully dismantle the institutions of marriage, religion and even a Bah Mitzvah. However, all serve to illustrate the profound and pervasive impact of their Jewish childhood…so perhaps the Coens didn’t quite come through unscathed after all.

Published on Concrete Playground.
Australian release date: 19 November 2009.

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