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A Serious Man (2009)


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My own view of the matter is that the Coens actually do have a great deal of affection/sympathy for their creations. They just have a funny way of showing it, is all. . . .

Yep. I've been saying this since that persistent accusation was fired at Raising Arizona.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Yep. I've been saying this since that persistent accusation was fired at Raising Arizona.

I was once this person, but was converted by Burn After Reading.

Edited by MLeary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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"It's got layers."

I don't think I've seen the Coens explore a theme so intently and thoroughly since Barton Fink and Miller's Crossing. There isn't a wasted moment here; every character, every situation adds to their central question, which again has to do with justice and righteousness.

Several of these characters are making sense of their lives by way of rational systems that they believe will lead them to some kind of success or justification. Whether that be morality or a gambling scheme, they're working toward a result that will satisfy them. Uncle Arthur is trying to solve the universe with mathematics; the religious Jews around him have systems of their own to make sense of things, systems that fall far short of providing satisfactory answers.

It's a hall-of-mirrors kind of story. Most reviews have focused on Larry Gopnik as the one who suffers. But he's also the judge, determining the fate of a South Korean student by giving him a failing grade, in spite of desperate appeals from the student. Everywhere you turn, somebody's trying to measure up, somebody's trying to bribe a judge, somebody feels they've been treated unjustly. Everybody wants a judge who is just, but nobody is able to fulfill that role when it's their turn to judge.

Looking back at their previous work, this film is most closely related to Barton Fink. Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind) is, well... there's no nice way to say this... a roommate built like a wrestler who has a rather off-putting problem with oozing. Instead of the dark, bottomless drainpipe of human depravity, we get Arthur's book of nightmarish mathematics, an elaborate and insufficient attempt to stuff the universe into his own head. He's a cartoon of his brother Larry, a character who believes that he's good... or at least good enough... to get some kind of stamp of approval. To win tenure, so to speak. Nevertheless, they are both guilty of compromises and failures and even crimes. And while they suffer and cry out that life is unfair, they compromise oh so quickly, even stooping to pay off their own judges in various ways.

It's also a sequel to The Man Who Wasn't There, as Larry basically lets things happen, and when he *does* choose to act, he sins. It's also a great follow-up to No Country, which was also about a man slowly realizing that the framework of his life is not big enough to contain its mysteries, and that there really are mysterious and spiritual forces for evil in the world. The opening scene of A Serious Man is like a brilliant segue from No Country to this late-60s story. Again, we meet a man who may not be a typical human being; he may be a vehicle for dark and powerful forces. And he leaves those who want a simple, rational explanation for the world groping for an answer.

As is so often the case with the Coens, some of the most interesting moments are throwaways... fleeting moments that you'll miss if you blink. For example,

witness a rabbi lifting up a scroll of the law and, finding it too heavy to suspend without trembling, gasps, "Jesus Christ.

"

I'd be hard-pressed to think of a film that is more openly and aggressively skeptical about a prominent world religion. (Well, okay, there's Religulous, but I mean a thoughtful film.)

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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I skipped your post after the first few sentences, Jeffrey, but look forward to reading it, and myriad other reviews and articles on the film, after I see A Serious Man tonight.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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People who thought the ending of No Country for Old Men was too abrupt are going to be pissed when they see this film.

The movie is very good, but it doesn't offer easy answers about its theological quandry. I'm not sure it offers any answers. And in a Book of Job kind of way, that might be appropriate.

The decor in this movie gave me the creeps. I hate everything about the look of this time period, which reminded me of my 1970s childhood (the movie is set a few years earlier), but I can't fault the set designers for getting this look exactly right. Ugh. Perfectly shot and filmed, but ... hideous. (This is a backhanded compliment; I liked all the tech work on this film, but I never want to look at those walls, those colors, again.)

Ann Hornaday's otherwise fantastic review gets one thing exactly wrong:

A darkly funny, affectionate homage to their Jewish roots, "A Serious Man" feels like the Coens' most disarmingly personal film in an oeuvre characterized by a chilly ironic distance that too often has shaded into outright condescension. (The best example may be the overpraised "No Country for Old Men," a mannered, pseudo-intellectual genre exercise devoid of real depth or meaning.)

Did she really go there? Did she? I mean, first, NCFOM isn't the Coens' story, while A Serious Man is. But "devoid of real depth or meaning" couldn't be further from my own experience of that story.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Steven Menashi @ The American Scene:

It seems to me that the Coen Brothers

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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This is all very nice but it's not coming to a theater near me anytime soon. How do you guys plan to see it?

I'm in the same boat. I even called a local movie theater about it - no plans of wide release anytime soon. Time to call for some theater company executives' heads. I want someone fired over this BS.

G.I. Joe is still playing at my local theaters. So is Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Fame, Capitalism: A Love Story, All About Steve, and Sorority Row. But the Coen Brothers' latest film? NOOOOOOooooooooooo.

Someone needs to be fired ... or murdered. I'd settle for either as long as they put the (site decorum) film in the (site decorum) theater. What? Are the Coen Brothers only for big city art house critiques? I think not.

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Ebert's full review is up, and it is Four Stars.

'Nuff said for me.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I like it that Ebert concludes with:

Remember that many parables contain their message in their last lines.

Most of the reviews I've read compare the film to the book of Job, but then don't discuss the ending in any specific terms. I can't remember what the last line of A Serious Man is, but I remember the final image. It caught me off-guard. I was looking down at my notes and looked up just in time to see the film's sudden (to me) conclusion.

I'm still thinking about it, but really, any fair interpretation is hopeless until I see the film again.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I like it that Ebert concludes with:

Remember that many parables contain their message in their last lines.

Most of the reviews I've read compare the film to the book of Job, but then don't discuss the ending in any specific terms. I can't remember what the last line of A Serious Man is, but I remember the final image. It caught me off-guard. I was looking down at my notes and looked up just in time to see the film's sudden (to me) conclusion.

I'm still thinking about it, but really, any fair interpretation is hopeless until I see the film again.

I think the last line

is Danny with his $20 yelling out for Fagle. Coming full circle from the film's beginning, it's one last failed attempt by Danny to return the kid's money.

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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So what are we to make of that -- considering the context of what else is happening in that scene?

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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So what are we to make of that -- considering the context of what else is happening in that scene?

That is the question, isn' it? :) I'm not completely sure, but knowing the Coens, I immediately think I'm supposed to laugh as he's thwarted once again. But in the larger context of the film, this is also one final example of life continuing on as we've come to expect it from this family. Nothing's changed in them, but now

the whirlwind bears down on them. Unlike blameless Job, who ultimately received mercy and blessing from the encounter with God in the storm, we have been faced with the self-absorbed Gropniks. I've kind of been thinking of the movie as portraying a kind of fallen version of Job, right up to Job 38:1 when he meets God. So as the whirlwind bears down on them, I wonder what it holds in store for them, given what we've seen from them throughout the film.

At least, that's the question I'm left with. What do you think?

All great art is pared down to the essential.
--Henri Langlois

 

Movies are not barium enemas, you're not supposed to get them over with as quickly as possible.

--James Gray

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That was pretty much my own interpretation, John. I'm glad to hear someone else suggest it; I figured I might be way off-base. I think I gave away too much of the ending in my review, but feel like I had to address it to some extent, because other reviews mention Job in the context of Gopnik's suffering -- but not in terms of the film's ending vs. the book's.

I wrote:

Like Job, Gopnik is not satisfied with the answers he receives, but just when his problems appear to be at a point of resolution, the film's sudden, surprising conclusion brings us back to the climax of Job's persistent demand for an audience with God: "Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said:

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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John Podhoretz, in a review that's not yet available to nonsubscribers, falls hard for A Serious Man. If there's one standout memory I have of Podhoretz, it was watching him on CNN's Crossfire debate a Premiere magazine editor over a discussion that year's best film. When the Premiere editor named Barton Fink as among the year's best films, Podhoretz shot back, "What is that film about?" As if the inability to give a one sentence answer to that question proved that the film wasn't worth seeing.

So I don't expect much from Podhoretz when it comes to the Coens, which makes this review a pleasant surprise:

In their scorchingly intelligent, profoundly surprising, and mesmerizingly punishing new film, the Oscar-winning Coen brothers return to the city, period, and faith of their boyhoods--and to the kinds of moral and theological questions that haunt intellectually precocious Jewish kids, which is what Joel and Ethan Coen must have been.

A Serious Man is nominally set in 1967 Minneapolis, but its true setting is an Old Testament universe in which God is a living but not especially comforting presence, curses are real, and evildoing is punished even as staggeringly difficult efforts to live a moral life go unrewarded. ...

God is very much present in A Serious Man--and He is, shall we say, very just and not very nice. He smites two men in the movie, one in a car accident and one with a diagnosis of cancer. And He summons a storm, with the suggestion that all the bad behavior we have witnessed might just have caused Him to reconsider the Covenant.

Larry Gopnik's attempt to understand why he is being put through the wringer is met with a decided lack of interest by his fellow Jews, who have decided that there's no point in conducting the argument with God. But he can't help himself, even if he does himself no good by engaging in the inquiry. ...

[T]his remarkable film [is], by leaps and bounds the best thing Joel and Ethan Coen have ever done

I'll post the link once the article is made public, possibly tomorrow.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Christian wrote:

: When the Premiere editor named Barton Fink as among the year's best films, Podhoretz shot back, "What is that film about?" As if the inability to give a one sentence answer to that question proved that the film wasn't worth seeing.

Heh. That reminds me of how the Entertainment Weekly review of Barton Fink said something like, "More than any other Coen brothers film, this movie is ultimately about nothing more than itself."

... and hey, here's the review itself: "In its dour, detached way, the movie is fun to watch — you have no idea what's coming next — but, even more than such previous Coen pictures as Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing, it's finally not about anything but itself." Okay, that's close enough to how I remembered it, I think.

Anyway, make of all that what you will.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Thanks, Peter. Because I've always rather liked Gleiberman as a critic, I feel the need to point out that he gave Barton Fink a grade of "B." I'd give it an "A+," but I'll take a "B" any day over Podhoretz's dismissiveness.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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John Podhoretz, in a review that's not yet available to nonsubscribers, falls hard for A Serious Man. ...

I'll post the link once the article is made public, possibly tomorrow.

Forgot to look for the review yesterday, but yup, it's been posted.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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'Somebody to Love': The Coen brothers' rock and roll epiphany

I saw The Big Lebowski again recently, and sorry, I’m still not wild about it (I think it’s more arduous than inspired), but what that sequence indicates to me is that the Coens should seriously consider making a gloriously skewed pop musical.

I’m more convinced of that than ever having seen the spectacular use they make of the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody to Love” in A Serious Man. This is one of those pop-music epiphanies worthy of Tarantino, Scorsese, or Paul Thomas Anderson — and the strange thing is, it’s just there, so unlikely yet so sublime, sitting right in the middle of the Coens’ highly personalized movie about a nebbishy Jewish family trying to make its way in Middle America in 1967.

A Serious Man opens with an old Yiddish parable (a fake, it turns out — the Coens just made it up), in which a kvetching couple in what looks like a 19th century Eastern European village invite an old man into their home who may or may not be a dybbuk (i.e., a malevolent spirit). This prologue introduces the movie’s grand theme — which is not, as many critics have said, an update of the Book of Job. Rather, the theme is a question: When bad things happen, are they the actions of God, or are they the result of people anxiously overreacting to what God does? . . .

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly, October 21

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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When bad things happen, are they the actions of God, or are they the result of people anxiously overreacting to what God does?. . .

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly, October 21

How is this not like Job?

Edited by Persona

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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When bad things happen, are they the actions of God, or are they the result of people anxiously overreacting to what God does?. . .

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly, October 21

How is this not like Job?

Well, Job asks why God allows/ordains hardship for those who don't deserve it (and ultimately avoids giving a clear answer). The question of A SERIOUS MAN, as phrased by Owen Gleiberman, has a different focus altogether.

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Well, Job asks why God allows/ordains hardship for those who don't deserve it (and ultimately avoids giving a clear answer). The question of A SERIOUS MAN, as phrased by Owen Gleiberman, has a different focus altogether.

I was thrown by Gleiberman's casting aside of Job, too, but really, the focus of his piece is the Jefferson Airplane song, and on that, I think his conclusion is right on:

Watching this moment, the audience, as it should, giggles in recognition. Yet the meaning of the song shines through with a new and peculiar beauty. According to A Serious Man, what those simple lines from a famous ’60s pop song describe, with despairing perfection (the truth revealed to be lies, the joy within you dying), is the condition of Jews in the modern, assimilated world. According to the movie, the deepest truths of their faith no longer hold; the joy of their path to transcendence has been dashed. And so…what then? That’s the question that Danny and his father must ask themselves. The rabbi has no answer. But the real answer, according to Joel and Ethan Coen, is…well, I can’t say it any better than Jefferson Airplane. And neither, apparently, could they.

The song -- or at least its chorus -- in the context of the movie is theological. It's about a man who wants in some sense to love God, but can't find reasons to do so.

Hey, whoa, wait a minute. Did Owen G. just write that he, also, has failed to warm to The Big Lebowski? I'm not alone!

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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We drove 75 miles to Lombard to see it because we weren't going to trust Rockford theaters to show the film.

The film met all my expectations and more.

I was raised Jewish by a not very observant Jew so I don't consider myself an expert on Jewish culture but I've been around enough of it to know that the Coens nailed the culture's many quirks, especially the scenes in the rabbis' offices. I also loved that the filmmakers didn't "mainstream" the film's Jewishness. I was extremely grateful that the film doesn't feel the need to explain every Hebrew/Yiddish word used in the script.

I need to ponder the film for a few more days before I wrote any more but the film is a definite MUST SEE for anyone who cares about faith and culture.

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