Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Serious Man

Ellie ran into a couple of friends at the gym who raved about A Serious Man, the new movie by the Coen Brothers. We had to see it, they said. So we dashed out and saw it.

Hmmm. What to say? "I hated it" would be pretty close to the truth. Its dark, mordant humor presents a bleak view of small-town America, a bleak view of Judaism, a bleak view of college education (Larry, the protagonist, a modern-day reincarnation of the unfortunate Job, teaches at a local university; he is being alternately bribed and threatened for a grade by a Korean student; and his job is at stake) and a bleak view of love. Among other things. In other words, a bleak view of humanity and human life in general.

Am I getting old? (Yes.) I used to find black humor funnier than I seem to find it now. My only laugh came at the end of the movie, when Larry's son, Danny, arrives in the august presence of the third and highest of the spiritual advisers Larry has desperately sought out (this one, unsuccessfully,) to relieve him of his tsuris. The wisdom from the lips of this supreme authority of the local temple, this guru of Judaic lore? "When the truth is found/To be lies...

... and all the joy/Within you dies..."

It's Grace Slick, of course, of the Jefferson Airplane. The story is set back in those good old days. I hear that the film has autobiographical references, and I suppose the Coen Brothers would have been growing up around that time. Anyway, the thought that the eternal truth of man's existence on this planet would emerge from the blown minds of the Jefferson Airplane did seem kind of funny. Otherwise, I failed to have much fun with these god-forsaken characters in this god-forsaken world. Larry is a gormless weakling, unable to summon the courage to face anyone, let alone his slacker son and thieving daughter (she wants the money for a nose job); or his pretentious, snappy wife and the pompous "friend" she wants to leave him for.

There's a fine line between the absurd and the simply bleak, and the Coen Brothers, in my view, lack the sensitivity to know how to walk it. Sometimes they hit it, sometimes they don't. The absurd reveals the fundamental, existential predicament of being human in a world abandoned by the gods who we used, for so many centuries, to make sense of it all. There's real tragedy inherent in absurdist humor. As in Greek tragedy of old, the hero is at the mercy of powerful universal forces beyond his control: the taxi filled with clowns explodes, and the audience roars with laughter. The simply bleak is pathos rather than tragedy: the hero is the victim of his own human inadequacies, his failure to take responsibility for the course of his life and the events that govern it. Larry is such a man. You want to slap his face and tell him to wake up.

The absurd, eventually, is uplifting. You come away cheered by having witnessed the worst, with the realization that this, in some way, is your life, your predicament as a fellow human being, and you have been able to laugh away the nightmare. The simply bleak is a downer. You come away angry at characters with whom you do not sympathize precisely because they seem pathetic and powerless. You do not want to be like them, nor to inhabit the nihilistic universe to which they are subjugated.

But maybe you'll feel differently. Clearly, our friends at the gym saw the film in a different light than I. Perhaps... perhaps I should be looking in the mirror, where the shadows lurk!


mandt said...


robin andrea said...

Thank you thank you thank you for reviewing this film. I'm going to call my mother right away. She was just telling me, not more than an hour ago, that she wants to go and see this film. Your review tells me all I need to know. It is definitely not the funny, insightful, poignant perspective she is looking for.

My mother and I went to see Blood Simple together, and I will never forget it. A nightmare.

Nancy Youdelman said...

Thank you! I will not see this movie.

Your reaction is exactly how I felt after seeing Fargo (which people raved about). It was nominated for 7 oscars and won two.

And I felt the same after seeing Burn After Reading. I truly wondered why I put myself through the pain of viewing it (was it that Brad Pitt was in it?).

There are some Coen Brothers movies that I truly loved, Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy for example.

I appreciate this post of yours and will save myself some grief.

Nancy Youdelman said...

I need to mention that I LOVED "O Brother Where Art Thou", their modern adaption of The Odyssey. What wonderful acting, fantastic music. I have the soundtrack.

TaraDharma said...

I appreciate this review, as I was wanting to see this film as well. As I get older, the bleak movies I enjoyed as a youth are just getting too much to slog through. Life can be bleak enough.

lindsey said...

I'll be the dissenting voice in this discussion...

I loved it! Mostly I enjoyed the cinematography, but I thought it was well acted and I got a good chuckle out of all the biblical allusions stuck here and there. (Sorry, religious studies nerd!)

I was frustrated for a little while after the movie because of how it ends. I mean, what's the meaning? What am I missing? Why???

Then I realized: the goyim's teeth.

Cat said...

I saw the movie and thought that it had a definite Buddhist theme - - that everything changes. At first it appeared that the man's life was falling apart, then the situations resolved themselves in his gfavor and then it appeared that his life might fall apart again.