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Men in Trouble: A Serious Man and The Informant!

The STOP SMILING Review

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Friday, October 02, 2009

By Justin Stewart

A Serious Man
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
(Focus Features)

The Informant!

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
(Warner Bros.)

A Serious Man will be considered by many a heftier effort than its predecessor, Burn After Reading, because of its ties with the Coen brothers' upbringing, the constant presence of religion and even its title. And since it's about families and faith, it's more consequential than the briefcase-full-of-cash movie, No Country for Old Men. Not to imply that that Best Picture winner or Burn were underrated, but the self-reflecting "advances" in A Serious Man that appear to make it weightier seem to me superficial and fairly arbitrary. It's methodical, distancing and sarcastic, like all of their movies. And like all of them, it's exciting cinema, "eminently watchable," as one of its characters would say.

Fans for any reason expecting a leapfrog over past achievements will be disappointed. Judaism here is another subject the Coens hold high in their hands, analyzing it with a clinical gaze, like they've done in the past with writer's block, North Dakotans and film noir. As always, their observations are mostly funny and unexpected, but not necessarily more "felt" because they grew up Jewish. And while the Coens, like the Gopnik children here, grew up in suburban Minnesota in the Sixties, it doesn't make the setting any more lived-in than Fargo or the LA of The Big Lebowski. That this Minnesota doesn't feel any more real is actually a testament to their virtuosity as writers and directors who can so regularly create memorable worlds with only minimal cribbing from autobiography.

Larry Gopnik, like the Coens' father when they were growing up, is a professor in a small Minnesotan university, but this is not the story of their father. The personal connections seem to have served more as launching pads to another Coens comedy about a man in trouble, facing ever-stacking oppression on all sides. It starts when one of his physics students receives an F and tries to bribe Larry for a passing grade. Soon the student's connected father is demanding either the good grade or threatening defamation of his son's character for asserting the bribery.

Larry's son Danny is facing bullies and an extraordinarily vigorous-for-his-age marijuana hobby, while his daughter is saving up money she's nipped from his wallet for a nose job. (In Burn After Reading it was a nip-and-tuck job one of the characters was after.) A sexy married neighbor sunbathes nude, fueling Gopnik's sexual frustration. Worst of all, Larry's brother (Richard Kind), a stooped lug in huge undershirts who has to mechanically suction pus out of a neck cyst, has moved into the house. Larry's castrating wife Judith "asks" for a divorce, saying she's been seeing Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a sort of mellow Jewish buddha whom she sees as more serious than her feckless husband. Sy and Judith both agree that it'd be wisest for Sy to move into the house, and for Larry (toting his brother) to stay at the local Jolly Roger (there's a neon skull and crossbones on the sign). Theater vet Michael Stuhlbarg, looking like Michael Musto with curly hair, barely-there lips, and heavy eyeglass frames, plays Larry sympathetically. He accepts this crescendo of indignities with a Charlie Brown shrug at first, but you can see his perplexity coming to a boil, especially after visits to a series of aloof, inept rabbis fail to stem the anguish.

A Serious Man is not as consistently funny as Burn After Reading, but it's never quite mediocre thanks to strengths like the oily, smooth-talking Melamed and details like Gopnik's caricatured goy neighbor who plays catch violently with his son, lets him play hooky to "go huntin' with his dad," and threatens the Korean father of the student who tries to bribe Larry. There's creeping disappointment, though, in the excess of "gotcha" dream sequences (all ending in annoying sweaty-faced wakeups), that lack the imaginative choreography of The Big Lebowski's reveries. Climactic moments fall flat. Danny is very high at his bar mitzvah, which is the sole joke of the scene; cinematographer Roger Deakins skews the image into pot-vision, but the humor is more Porky's or Van Wilder than Coen. A built-up visit by Danny to the mystical rabbi Mashrak ends with a cheap gag.

"The fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture Larry," Ethan Coen has said, and essentially that's all the movie is. A grand metaphor for the plight of man this is not. References to Heisenberg and the Talmudic sage Rashi mix high-low with repeated Jefferson Airplane and F-Troop remarks. Like the Jewish "in" language of getts, shivah, dybbuks and shtetls that saturate the screenplay like a Roth novel, it's merely flavoring. The Coens aren't making fun of Larry or Judaism, but, in their typical cunning way, they're not not, either. 

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