Monday, January 25, 2010

A Serious Review - Alyson Hill

Anyone who has seen one of the Coen brothers' masterpieces -- "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski" or "No Country for Old Men" to name a few -- knows what to expect of their films: innovative and engrossing stories, gloriously idiosyncratic regular-guy type characters, and impeccable attention to detail with regard to cinematography, production design and music. And with somewhere in the neighborhood of one zillion films to their names now, it's safe to say you have most likely had the pleasure of taking in at least one, so when I tell you that "A Serious Man" is everything one has come to expect of a Coen film, I think you'll know what I mean.

This newest offering from the brothers Coen is about Larry Gopnik, a professor, husband and father who is trying desperately to be a real mensch as he watches his life slowly swirl the drain. His wife is leaving him for his smarmy colleague (played perfectly by Fred Melamed), a student is trying to blackmail him, he's in the middle of a property dispute with his neighbor -- and that's just the first twenty minutes. In a scene reminiscent of the family shouting matches from Portnoy's Complaint, Larry's daughter, Sarah, repeatedly complains that Uncle Arthur spends hours in the bathroom "draining his cyst" while Arthur protests that he will be out in a minute. There are many more humorous moments to be found in this film, most them quite dark; one finds oneself laughing not because one doesn't sympathize with this poor schmuck -- Michael Stuhlbarg is nothing if not sympathetic as Gopnik -- but because we have all shared those moments, moments so sublimely catastrophic they seem to have been bestowed on us by the hand of a wrathful god. If you can't relate to that -- if you've never, say, woken up a week before a major holiday to find a pipe burst in your wall and flooded your living room -- then this film may not be for you.

"A Serious Man" is, of course, more than just a dark comedy; it is a reflection on the cruelty of life, and the frustrations of trying to lead a righteous one. It's like a re-telling of the Biblical story of Job, but with no payoff and set against the backdrop of mid-'60s middle America. This sounds bleak, and it is. It's also rife with tension, anxiety, and dread, but the flawless execution of the film keeps it from being a downer. The production design is nothing short of sumptuous, with lush, muted interiors and sunny, pristine exteriors. The look of the film is stylized yet historically accurate; the costumes are "drab chic," if you will, with half the characters wearing fantastically ugly horn-rimmed glasses and the other half donning two types of plaid at the same time. Doctors light up cigarettes while dispensing medical advice, the kids are hooked on Jefferson Airplane, and everyone, it seems, is smoking the reefer. The sights of Hebrew school, rabbis and bar mitzvahs, and the sounds of Hebrew, Yiddish slang and music permeate every moment of "A Serious Man," richly enhancing the film's character, as well as making it clear that the story is about Jewish-American life just as much as it is about misfortune, frustration and religious doubt. As a goy, there isn't a whole lot I can say about that aspect of the film, but I will say that the Jewish and sixties imagery are intertwined in a way that is simply exquisite to take in, and the film is worth watching for the audio-visual feast alone.

"A Serious Man" probably wouldn't rate as the best Coen brothers film, but that's not saying much considering how many critically-acclaimed classics the two are responsible for. It is certainly among the best, though, a grim delight that contains too much to be fully appreciated in a single viewing. "A Serious Man" continues throughout this week at The Loft.

Alyson Hill is a staff member and aspiring projectionist at The Loft Cinema. She has a B.A. in History, German Studies and Classics, which is all well and good, but she likes this movie stuff better and hopes her life continues to revolve indefinitely around funny, creative people and the bizarre and beautiful things they create. An incorrigible Anglophile, her favorite things include The Kinks, Tony Richardson and brown ales.

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