Monday, February 22, 2010

"Sy Ableman!?": A Serious Man (2009)

Over the past week, I should have been able to post eight new blog posts. But between my prolific movie watching (as stress relief) and the mountain of work that I've had to do, I haven't been able to post at all. It's a terrible tragedy. But all will be rectified, now that everything's slowed down.
As part of my personal campaign to see all of the major Oscar nominees, I saw A Serious Man last weekend thanks to Netflix. For those not in the know, A Serious Man is the story of Larry Glopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish professor in 1960s Minnesota whose life is imploding, and he is powerless to stop it. His wife is leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), much to Larry's surprise; his estranged brother (Richard Kind) is getting in trouble for his gambling habit; his kids are unruly; and to top it all off, he is being bribed by one of his students while he is also awaiting to hear if he's gained his tenure. Larry is forced to figure out why everything is happening to him.
Of course, this being a Coen Brothers movie, there is no reason for Larry's suffering. Thus the film is like a modern, very Jewish retelling of the story of Job. The Coens are famous for their love of meaninglessness, a theme that's been in all of their films but has become especially prevalent as of late (No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading played meaningless violence for tension and laughs, respectively). Larry serves as an excellent vessel for their nihilism, as he goes from rabbi to rabbi searching for answers and finding none. The Coens' screenplay is vibrant and true to their natures, and the characters are never just a culmination of the story, especially Larry, who is given enough depth that you can understand him as a man rather than a target.
Larry would not be so interesting without the bravura performance by Stuhlbarg, a stage veteran. Its amazing that he hasn't received much attention for this role, despite being an early contender for the Oscar. Richard Kind is also excellent as Uncle Arthur, though I've always liked him in anything (Scrub's Mr. Corman is my personal favorite).
This is a polarizing film, though, especially when you consider how it begins and how it ends. Since I am against spoiling, I'll just discuss the former. The film begins in what appears to be medieval Eastern Europe, and relates the Jewish folk tale of the dybbuk, a demon that inhabits the body of a person until it is religiously exorcised. The beginning seems out of place at first, until the Coens are bold enough to make you wonder: is Larry possessed by a dybbuk? Once again, no easy answer is coming, though its never really not answered either (confused?). The film is very love it or hate it, and I'm more on the middle, kind of confused part. Do I completely understand it? Of course not. But I am impressed by it, and its another entry in the Coens' current win streak.

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