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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Several reviewers have commented on physics representing logical certainty. In this movie, the opposite is true, and I believe that is the fulcrum upon which this modern story of Job rests. Modern physics strikes at the very heart of faith, mystery and law
The dybbuk! The husband is caught in the world of the material and cannot believe that the rabbi before him is a spirit, but his wife...she is not fooled! She believes that the world is filled with mysteries, and her faith in this leads to decisive action--saving them??
"Schroedinger's Cat" is a modern mystery, and it is the single subject that Larry is teaching in his physics class. "Bracket k bracket and it is equal," he says with finality, thinking that he has demonstrated the order of the world neatly. But "Schroedinger's Cat" is the ultimate expression of the rules of order, or G-d's work, leading off the cliff into the abyss of mystery.
In the example Schroedinger published in 1935, a cat is in a box with a "diabolical apparatus" which kills the cat if a random subatomic particle decays. Modern physics, being invented at the time, made the absurd prediction that until you opened the lid to check, the cat was in some sort of blurred probability space of being alive/dead, and it only became actually dead (or alive) when you opened the lid to check. Observation changed reality. The cat is in a mysterious state, beyond our comprehension or belief until we look. Do we have faith? Einstein didn't. He countered stating that "G-d doesn't play dice with the universe!" Schroedinger was doubtful, but insisted that the mystery was simply inescapable. This is the foundation for a rich allegory, indeed.
"I don't understand the mathematics, but I understand the stories," Larry's Korean student insists. "No, if you don't understand the math, you don't understand the physics. Even I sometimes don't understand the stories," Larry shoots back.
And in this lies the nub of the tale. Larry understands the rules--and follows them. His life is dreary and takes a seeming nose dive. Plague after plague arise and he is perplexed. One rabbi says "We all question the existence of hashem ("his name" = G-d) and then we see the wonder in...the parking lot." HE GETS IT!! For him it is faith. Even the friggin' parking lot is a divine miracle! The next rabbi weaves a deeply mystical tale with a banal ending. Larry is outraged. "What does it mean?" "How do I know. G-d does't owe us an explanation. The responsibility is the other way around," the rabbi responds. They each have their own understanding and advise. The young rabbi is not yet wise and advises faith. The next rabbi acknowledges mystery, but says it is beyond us to understand, so be a good person, "or a better person." "God doesn't owe us an explanation. The responsibility runs the other way."
It soon becomes clear that the Korean student and his father have a razor-sharp understanding of the "Schroedinger's Cat" story and thrust the paradox into Larry's life with a vengeance. If only Larry understood the paradox.
But he understands logic and rules. His faith is shaky, but he follows the rules. Sy doesn't believe a G-d is watching him, steals his friends wife, and G-d strikes him down in his path.
Even Larry's brother, believes in a crazy half-physics, half-Kaballah mystery and he actually wins card games with it, but he breaks the rules and is a pariah.
The last rabbi will not even talk to him. The most direct response of G- d being questioned by a doubting subject.
At the end, Larry feels he is through his trial and "opens the box" to check to see if there is a G-d there. Surprise! There is! He opened the box by breaking the rules. The cat is dead. All his plagues had only been in some sort of blurred probability space of having happened/not happened; his marriage, his tenure the whole chain of events. It was not until he tested G-d by breaking a rule that the very real G-d of the bible smote him and his eldest son down.
The original Job had actual punishments and kept his faith. Our modern Job has existential punishments and ends with a lack of faith. We must have faith, recognize the mysteries or obey the law according to our capacity, but to do none of these is an abomination.
My wife and I saw the film last Friday. We talked about it for an hour
over dinner and again in the evening. The more we discussed it the
better we liked it.
It helps to be familiar with the paradox of Schrodinger's cat, a staple of quantum physics, which can be found on Wikipedia, before you go see this film. You might also want to understand the quantum concept of duality.
The entire movie examines Gopnick and his world==and to a lesser extent that of his teenage son--in light of these aspects of quantum mechanics. I could not find a single scene that did not address uncertainty and/or duality. The attempt to discern traditional religious meaning in this world is humorous in itself. The opening presents the paradox and is crucial to the rest of the film.
Unlike the local review for the film which described this as a "typical Coen Brothers film" and "weird" and "no closure at the end", I found this film to be quite literal and true to the principles of uncertainty and duality. The two major characters both find closure, and in retrospect, there is clearly a beginning, middle and end to the story the brothers wanted to tell.
But the movie continues after the closure, just as life continues on a daily basis, setting up another expectation of continual uncertainty.
Not being Jewish, I no doubt missed some of the double entendre and humor in the tradition. I would have liked to understand the Hebrew passage of the bar mitzvah ceremony, for example, and how it relates to the core theme of the film. But the movie is universal in its appeal, if you understand the basic concept of quantum mechanics upon which the film is based.
I rate this as one of their best films due to its intellectual foundation. Much more important to me than No Country.
You may have to be a believer (Jewish or Christian) to like this film,
although some secular (at least middle-aged midwestern) Jews and others
may find it worthwhile for the period details. It is a modern version
of the book of Job, which--of course you remember--contains a prologue
in which God and Satan bet on whether Job will remain faithful and
Satan then strikes down Job's flocks, children, and health; a series of
speeches by three comforters with Job's responses; a speech by Elihu
who is unhappy with the advice of the three comforters; the Lord
himself answering Job directly out of the whirlwind ('who is this who
darkens counsel by words without knowledge?'); a final submissive
speech by Job ('I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now
mine eye see thee, wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and
ashes'); and an epilogue in which Job receives more flocks and children
(...) than he had before.
The book and the film address what (Christian, at least) theologians call theodicy, or how bad things can happen in the world when God, who supposedly controls everything, is supposedly good. For nonbelievers (if you have any interest in the subject), the best way to think of this is perhaps to ask yourself whether the universe (the Creation) is on balance a good thing ('and God saw that it was good'). If so, then perhaps we somehow have an obligation to live moral lives and (as Jews and Christians think of it) to follow God's law. If not, then perhaps it's every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost.
The Coens' answer, if I understand it correctly, comes out of the whirlwind at the end in the voice of Grace Slick. I personally prefer God's original response with its paean to astrophysics and evolutionary biology--'Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? ... Gave you wings and feathers unto the ostrich? Who leaves her eggs in the earth, and warms them in the dust, and forgets that the foot may crust them or that the wild best may break them...; because God has deprived her of wisdom, neither has he imparted to her understanding'--which essentially asserts that Creation is wonderful and a package deal. But the Coens' very different answer, while oddly Christian in emphasis, is fully consistent with both the 1960s zeitgeist and with the midwestern Jewish community that they have so meticulously recreated.
If you like this film, you really need to see it twice. But without giving anything away, if you see it once, be careful to pay attention to (i) the bribe that, like Schroedinger's cat, is alive and dead at the same time and (ii) the whirlwind at the end. This is a great film.
The Coen brothers have developed critical acclaim for making black
comedies/awkward tragedies that depict small-time people getting in way
over their heads, who for one reason or another are motivated to do
things out of the ordinary because the natural order of the world and
society has wronged them in some way.
"A Serious Man," however, is about a man who doesn't do anything, to whom bad/annoying things happen. This story of a confused suburban Jewish man in the '60s wrestling with life's meaning is therefore an important step in the evolution of the Coens' theme-driven film-making. Borrowing on an autobiographical context (Minnesota, Judaism, etc.) for the brothers, it moves on to greater cosmic questions but with the same quirky and ironic spirit that have garnered the Coens all their deserved attention over the last 20 years.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is that one Coen brothers character in every movie -- you know, the innocent one who manages to suffer a seemingly unfair fate (think Steve Buscemi in "The Big Lebowski" or most recently Richard Jenkins' character in "Burn After Reading") -- only he gets to pilot this film. In that spirit, an unknown Stuhlbarg is cast in the lead (although he was clearly up for the challenge). Larry is a mild-mannered math professor with a family in an ideal suburban home only his wife wants a divorce and his kids are nightmarish. Little by little the annoyances of his life pile up from the foreign student trying to bribe him for a passing grade while simultaneously suing him for defamation to his socially immature brother (Richard Kind) who won't leave his house.
Larry seeks answers from the rabbis in his community to understand the mess his life has suddenly become. One rabbi tells him he needs a change of perspective, another tells him the story of "The Goy's Teeth," a hilarious bit about a dentist who tries desperately to make meaning of a Hebrew message engraved in a patient's teeth only to find he was better off not worrying about it. None of their advice seems to help at the time -- but it's dead on. The Goy's Teeth scene in particular is one of the brilliant moments where the Coen brothers let you know pretty clearly what their intentions are with the film while giving you something to laugh about. That's their strength and it's all over "Serious Man."
Much like "Burn After Reading," this film is one that makes a thematic point out of the audience's attempt to squeeze meaning out of everything. By turning Larry into a Job-like figure to whom inexplicable misfortune happens, we're forced to put everything into perspective. When Kind's character, Arthur, has a tantrum in the middle of the night wondering why God has given him nothing and he points out that Larry has kids and a job, suddenly our perspective changes. Suddenly everything we thought mattered in this film and was of critical importance is really not such a big deal. Our desperate search for answers in both our lives and in this film, our tendency to over-analyze and derive reason from everything comes to a halt; the Coen bros. have worked their magic again.
"Serious Man" is one of their best in recent memory because it not only feels rooted and personal for them, but it moves toward a greater discussion of previously treaded upon themes and plots from their previous work. It is a challenging film and those who have struggled with the Coen brothers before will struggle again, but for the cerebral and intellectual moviegoer it's outstanding.
The truth is, we don't have all the answers to make sense of life's events (or a story's plot points) and neither do the Coen brothers. One insignificant character in the film who appears to have an answer to just one of Larry's myriad of minor problems dies instantly with hysterical irony. Don't go into "A Serious Man" looking for answers, go into it looking for a change of perspective. ~Steven C Visit my site at http://moviemusereviews.blogspot.com
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The only thing fairly remarkable or remotely intriguing about this film
is the opening wherein a Yiddish-speaking Jew of the 19th century
invites (accidentally) a dybbuk (evil spirit in the shape of a man)
into his family home. The ominous turn of events and the wife's
sensible solution to the situation is comical and you would think the
film would build on such an interesting prologue.
Alas, like reading the Book of Job without the good parts (namely the philosophical arguments and the poetry, let alone a resolution), A Serious Man feels like an exercise in viewing torture. (What is it about 2009? The Road and A Serious Man both belong in the category of 'agonizing to watch...).
Maybe the brilliance of this film lies in that you think at any minute this honest, good, hard-working Jewish man will crack and finally take on the world that is besetting him as opposed to questioning G-d. But for much of the film, our lead character, Larry Gopnik, a professor, husband, father of two, brother of socially-inept Adam, there is little here that happens, let alone satisfies a viewing audience.
It has been awhile before I watched a film wherein I continually battled with myself over whether I should continue or simply walk away. I wanted to walk away...
What made this film the most unbearable is how each periphery character rarely ever showed their humanity - Larry's Son and Daughter are simply cretins, the former a typical high school student with bully problems and marijuana indulgence (also he orders records of the month and leaves the bill for his father) while his daughter's only needs in life seem to be her hair and going out. There is no dimension to either of them while their mother, Larry's wife is a loveless shrew that remarkably makes Larry pay for his rival's funeral, an arrogant friend of the family named Sy. Throughout the first half of the film, Sy and Larry's wife are in love, working on Larry to get a kosher divorce.
After awhile, I lost sympathy for the lead, not because of his wife and family, but because he had wandered into a cinematic world lacking humanity, let alone real people. The Coens have not crafted a movie, let alone a film but an alternate universe, a torture chamber of bland direction and characterization. It has been awhile since I watched a film where I felt I despised so many characters. Ideally, supporting characters are there to create relationships, to reveal the complexity of human life. It seems everyone here is just another means to stab the lead and bludgeon him with their inane presence. Even the rabbi who refuses to talk to him feels less like a person as opposed to a forced story development.
If you were the kid in school who didn't torture earth worms or pull butterfly wings off Monarchs, then you might not like this debacle, another pseudo-film from the Coen Brothers.
I suppose the first thing that needs to be said is that I'm not Jewish
and, as such, a lot of what was obviously a deeply personal movie went
over my head, and I was left feeling like an outsider, almost a voyeur.
However, perhaps as a result of this I'm able to view the film more objectively. Visually, it is beautiful. There are so many perfectly framed scenes that even when the story seems to drag it keeps you captivated.
Having said that, for me, it did drag. The central figure was a neurotic, cerebral, awkward, middle aged Jewish man. Not entirely a cinematic first. Add to this the fact that he was possibly the most passive character in cinematic history - he literally made no decisions in the entire movie until the final scene. Instead he was drawn from one catastrophe to another, on the basis that he was a good, upstanding man surrounded by stronger people.
Normally in this situation we would see the character challenged and grow, but this is the Coen brothers, so it's not going to be that simple. Instead,,we are left to squirm at the relentless nature of the man's incessant failings - a frustrating experience, particularly if you're not privy to the Jewish humour that pervades this intimate film.
It seemed to me almost as if the Coen Brothers were seeing how far they can stretch their high profile. With No Country For Old Men they robbed us of the pivotal, climactic scene and I for one left feeling cheated. Here they simply don't introduce it at all. They break every story paradigm there is, as if to suggest that they are now so great they can present a piece that has no development, no conclusion, a prologue that seems to have no relevance to the main body of the work, and no redemptive quality to extract from any of the characters. A bit like real life I suppose. But who wants to see that on a forty foot screen?
I need to lay down.
I can see why many people would dismiss this. Like the reviewer who
watched "52 minutes" and turned it off because none of the characters
were likable so it would be a waste of time to continue.
Those who expect life to be a series of plausible outcomes, logically following some kind of cause and effect order are always disappointed by honest works of art, not to mention life itself. One of the very themes of this film are those kinds of people and their need to cling to some sort of tradition, structure, and belief in order to deny their fear.
Another theme was perspective and perception. That what may seem mundane and meaningless may be filled with the most profound meaning and that which we place so much value in may be worth absolutely nothing.
"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you."
If you can enjoy a movie that leaves you with questions as much as one that attempts to provide answers then I highly recommend a viewing.
I saw this movie at TIFF on Saturday. The Coens quietly (and I mean quietly - no-one could hear even their amplified voices) introduced the movie with reference to the actors present but not the movie, letting it speak for itself. And it did. In its own way. It is an off-beat (what else?) and serious work that radiates bleak despair while searching for a funny bone. In the process, the movie makes other black comedies look positively light and airy. The movie evokes laughs from a different place than most from a profound discomfort watching people twist themselves this way and that to fit in and be regarded seriously, whether situationally, socially or religiously. A great piece of work that will have you thinking long afterwards, especially considering the odd and difficult-to-contextualize prologue and, um different, ending which bookend a remarkable work.
A Serious Man (2009)
Such a vivid recreation of late 1960s suburban America is a remarkable enough basis for a movie, making the real meat of the thing almost transcendent. A joy! I recognized everything here from my own childhood--everything except everything Jewish.
And that's the point, taken well. And made well, brilliant from start to finish. Very Coen Brothers--moving, sometimes disturbing, and sometimes very hilarious.
For insiders--American Jews--the references and send-ups will be moving and funny and familiar. For outsiders--goys--A Serious Man is an indoctrination, a can opener to an ethnic world with deep roots (Eastern European in this case), great integrity, and many internal (modern) conflicts.
The surrealism sprinkled throughout is just smart movie-making, keeping it from becoming a deep, ironic, and serious movie. It's a comedy with deeply serious undertones, not the other way around. Some of the acting is amazing, Michael Stuhlbarg playing the line between tragedy and farce in every scene, and the filming is expert without ever drawing attention to itself. The ending will leave many people talking and it isn't appropriate to do that here, except to say that in some ways it leaves you thinking so hard you may read more into the events than is really there.
Or not. Certainly the first scene, if it is some metaphor for all the follows, is both trenchant and disturbing, more Babel than Singer, but perhaps (perhaps) frightening in its misogyny. In fact, the whole movie has men who are wise, who laugh at their fate, who do good things, and women who, one way or another, stick the knife in you.
And who (or what) is the dybbuk here? Is this about the survival of some kind of Judaic history in contemporary America? Or is it larger, about the meaning of Judaism period, on a worldly level? Or larger still, is it simply a movie, like Do the Right Thing or My Big Fat Greek Wedding or any of thousands of others, about life, and love, and the struggling of one person against the woes of the world as he or she faces them, in their own context?
Or is it a comedy, a really funny comedy, making fun, having fun, and rising above the tawdry enough to remind everyone, Jewish or not, of the need we all have for community and connection and continuity.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Coen Brothers give to its frazzled protagonist Larry Gopnick a line
a few times during the course of A Serious Man, "I didn't do anything!"
that is more than just an homage to Franz Kafka - it's ripping him off
basically. This is not to say Larry is quite in the same predicament of
Joseph K. Then again, I wonder if Larry would prefer no explanation to
the if-it-wasn't-for-bad-luck-I-would-have-no-luck status over the
kinds he gets to his troubles. He has a divorce pending and his wife
leaving with Sy Ableman (seriously, Sy Ableman!), he has a South Korean
student who may be simultaneously bribing him and suing him for
defamation, he has a brother who has a cyst/no job/gambling troubles,
two kids who more or less are just typically dysfunctional teens (the
boy on his way to be Bar Mitzvah and smoking enough dope to acknowledge
more than once that it's 1967), and his sexual repression is
practically taunted by the foxy Jewish woman next door who sunbathes
nude. And what does God have to say about this? Oh, don't get him
started on trips to the Rabbi - frankly, he'd have better luck with
A Serious Man is a movie to take seriously as art, but at the same time the Coens aren't above pulling out their usual all-stops to make this a hilariously weird and awkward movie. Perhaps a better way to compare is that it's like if Curb Your Enthusiasm starred an average shmo who doesn't have quite the sense of humor of Larry David (and, perhaps, is even cursed by his bloodline via the opening scene in the movie... or maybe not, I'll get to that in a moment), and who keeps getting s*** on from all directions (not coincidentally perhaps Richard Kind appears in both show and movie). It's such a funny movie that I have to think back to Big Lebowski and O'Brother Where Art Thou to remember when I laughed so hard. Maybe its the predilection for Jewish jokes that sting so, or maybe its the originality with the storytelling. As far as a black-as-Jewish-death comedy, it works completely.
As for being a masterpiece of a film... I'm still not completely sure. Sometimes the Coens' movies are instant classics (No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple), and others take a little while to grow on a viewer (i.e. Miller's Crossing, even Big Lebowski was a grower and not a shower for me). A Serious Man may fall in the latter category; it's such a personal film, maybe more than anyone done before if only for the time and place and particulars of the characters in a Jewish-suburb of Minnesota, and its such an oddity in their catalog of work. Watching Larry on this existential odyssey of "WTF" nears Bergman proportions - there's even a scene where a character's death affects a woman in much the same way as the father Ekdahl's death in Fanny & Alexander - where religion is tested to the fullest and most harrowing of emotional schemes. Where is God when Larry needs him? Everywhere? Nowhere? Screw Larry, he didn't pay his (son's) Columbia Records account!
But for all that succeeds in A Serious Man, such as a completely masterful sequence (a contender for my single favorite sequence of any movie this year) where a Rabbi describes a harrowing and pointless and uproarious story of a dentist and a Goy's teeth, or when Larry's son is stoned out of his mind when reading the Torah at his Bar Mitzvah (a first in cinema history, combining marijuana, Roger Deakins' use of a lens-baby, and Hebrew), and its creative characterizations and shocking nightmare scenes, it's an unsettling film, and not always in the best ways. It's a film that, as one could argue in their past films, is at war with if not the audience directly then with audience expectations. We might expect A Serious Man to just be about this man's downward spiral in his life, but what then to make of that (cool) opening scene all in Yiddish and (admitted by Joel Coen) to not really have a whole lot to do directly with the rest of the movie, or, for that matter, the end of the movie which just... ends.
As far as 'f***-you's' to audiences go, it certainly is funny and startling in comparison with No Country for Old Men (almost like the Coens are saying 'yeah, knock this one this time, we *dare* you!), and if I get an f-you from filmmakers I'm glad it comes from them. But... you will either need more than a viewing for it to sink in, or you'll curse the day you decided to walk in the theater or rent it. Not much of a middle ground. Then again, I wouldn't want it any other way in this case. And hey, it's got Jefferson Airplane quoted by a Yoda-Rabbi, that scores points right there! 9.5/10
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