Friday, September 18, 2009

Toronto FilmFest Reviews: A Serious Man

I've had to let this one stew for a while. The Coen brothers are funny--they can make incredibly tight, spare movies like No Country For Old Men, and then they can turn around and make thematically and narratively dense flicks like Miller's Crossing. A Serious Man is one of the latter, and I'm going to have to see it at least once more to unpack everything that's going on here. I'm fairly certain, though, that it's one of their best.

Larry Gopnik (Mitch Stuhlbarg)'s life is in turmoil. He's a physics professor who's up for tenure, when he's confronted with a Korean student (Stephen Park) who wants to bribe him to get a passing grade. Meanwhile Larry's wife (Sari Lennick) suddenly announces that she wants a divorce, because she's fallen in love with their hilariously touchy-feely neighbour Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). The two of them proceed to bully him out of his own house, along with his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) who was already sleeping on their couch. On top of that, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is approaching his bar mitzvah, but he's got troubles of his own, being harassed by a bully for the money he owes him for pot.

Larry's life becomes so incredibly tumuluous that he suffers an existential crisis and begins a campaign to seek advice from various rabbis. Unfortunately, their advice is rarely conforting and often actively bewildering. If only he could get in to see the legendary Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mendell), maybe it would all make sense...

What's impressive about this movie is that, even at a glance, it seems to be working on several different thematic levels at once. I'm pretty sure it's functioning both as a primer on Jewish philosophy and an examination of rationality vs. mysticism, while at the same time it's a more personal story about guilt. And I've heard one critic mention that it can further be read as a refutation of chaos theory! Needless to say, some of this goes over my head, but it's still a fascinating movie that I'll be chewing over for a while to come.

It's also pretty darn funny, as you'd expect, in that dry, weird Coen way. It's got a certain spark to it, too, a sense almost of joy in spite of the rather cynical goings-on; almost like the Coens were struggling a bit to maintain their usual detatchment and contempt for the characters. But then, since the Coens are Jewish and grew up in Minnesota in the 60s, which is the same time, place and culture that provides the backdrop for this movie, it's hard to escape the idea that they may have made a more personal film than usual. It's certainly interesting to see the Coens tackling the big questions of God and Fate and the Universe, not that they treat it with any less snarkiness than they do anything else.

Clearly on track to be the best movie I'll see at the festival, unless "Up In The Air" is really, really good.

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