Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Serious Man review

A Serious Man, the latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen, is brilliant in many respects, such as the revelatory performance by Michael Stuhlbarg in the lead, which deeply deserves recognition come award season, and the Coens’ trademark quirky humor. What makes the film stand out is how it expertly blends broad comedy with biblical tragedy, causing the viewer to think that the two inevitably go together. Small in scope where the Coens’ other recent masterpiece, No Country for Old Men, was wide, it centers on the fall of one ordinary, self-described “serious” man.
Larry Gopnik, the protagonist, is cursed with an insufferable family; a bratty teenage daughter whose shrill whining fills the house the second he comes home, a pothead son in debt to a local bully who gets high before his bar mitzvah, a wife who reveals that she’s having an affair and, with the assistance of her new lover, forces Larry out of his house into a motel, and a brother who compulsively gambles and ends up getting arrested. Larry’s job as a physics professor doesn’t offer much comfort; there, he’s being bullied and bribed into changing a student’s failing grade by both the student and the student’s father, and has to jump through legislative hoops to get tenure. On top of all of this, he’s low on money (meaning he can’t afford a lawyer for his divorce), his neighbor is building over the property line, and his quest for spiritual enlightenment is more frustrating than enlightening. He is also plagued by nightmares, which form some of the more entertaining and disturbing dream sequences in recent film history.
Larry’s trips to three ineffectual rabbis form a frame in the middle of the story. The first is a young, inexperienced one who can only offer empty platitudes. The second, while more experienced, only offers an odd story (it must be seen to be believed) that has no relevance to Larry’s problems. On the trip to the third, most revered, rabbi, Larry has reached his breaking point. He is clearly exasperated as he begs the rabbi’s secretary for an appointment. She then walks into a book-filled office where the rabbi is sitting quietly. She shortly comes back, and tells the frustrated Larry, “The rabbi is busy.” When Larry shouts that he doesn’t look busy, the secretary, in the same deadpan voice, says, “He’s thinking.” The spiritual quest, which his soon-to-be ex-wife was convinced would help, comes up empty.
Larry’s story does not have a neat ending. A tornado approaches a school as a group of students, including Larry’s son, hides in the basement. At the same time, Larry receives a call from the doctor he saw for tests at the beginning of the film, and the doctor is clearly bearing bad news, but the screen fades to black before the news is revealed. There is no redemption in Larry’s suffering, as there was, of sorts, in the Biblical story of Job, whose story Larry’s symbolically resembles. Unlike Job, Larry finds no solace in faith, and, the viewer can infer from the grim voice of the doctor and the black tornado clouds overhead, will not gain back what he has lost.

In the first installment of a series during the European Union Film Showcase at the AFI Silver Theatre, a brief review of the Bulgarian film Zift. This film could best be described as an Eastern European homage to American film noir. The story centers around a thief who goes by the name Moth, just released from prison in Communist Bulgaria, and is told both forward and backward, in what happens after his release, and how he ended up in prison. While occasionally Moth's voice-overs lend too much exposition, and explain things that don't need to be explained, the film is a classic noir, full of twists, including the subtle but jarring ultimate twist at the end, and moody cinematography. The lead actor, whose name escapes me at the moment, is coolly charismatic and gives a stunning and nuanced performance, particularly while Moth, in the second half, is walking the streets after being poisoned by a former partner in crime. The bleakness of Communist-bloc Eastern Europe proves an excellent setting for a film noir.
While there is no way I will get to see every film in the showcase, or even every one I want to see (I unfortunately missed a very interesting-sounding Polish movie called Piggies this past weekend), I will mention the ones I do get to see here.

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