Friday, November 20, 2009

A Serious Man (Movie Review)

I didn't have high expectations of the Coen brothers' latest film, A Serious Man, in part because I have come to expect their work to be hit and miss, though always interesting, in part because I read a blurb that referred to it as a relatively minor work in the Coens' careers, even more a movie that lacks a certain quality:  human sympathy perhaps (a charge often leveled against Joel and Ethan Coen).

I would disagree that the movie is a minor work or that it lacks humanity.  I can speak only for myself, my tastes, and my frame of mind upon seeing the film after finishing a tiring week at Wake Tech, but after one viewing it strikes me as the brothers' finest film to date.

Here I should list the Coen movies that I most like:  Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and most of O Brother Where Art Thou?  Movies I have admired without taking much of a deep liking to are Blood Simple, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men, and Burn After Reading.  Of these, A Serious Man most resembles The Man Who Wasn't There in its glum ironies, period details, and sense of moral authority and metaphysical ambiguity, but the new Man moved me in ways the old Man did only intermittently.

A Serious Man strikes me as reverent, and as such it may appeal to moviegoers who, like me, appreciate the not altogether bleak austerity of the films of Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and, more recently, Arnaud Desplechin, who, unlike Bresson and Bergman, shares some of the Coens' sly, dry humor.

Other reviewers have seen the movie as the Coens' take on the Book of Job.  It certainly contains several allusions to the symbolism and themes of Job.  But its relation to the work is not similar to O Brother Where Art Thou?'s adaptation of Homer's Odyssey.  Its relation to Job is more like Burn After Reading's relation to No Country for Old Men:  oblique, wry, and dialectic.

I'm going to have to admit right now that I don't think I'm going to be able to summarize the message or impact of the latest film.  As I was saying to Kirsten, the friend with whom I saw it, it is, like poetry and great art, not reducible to summary.  It has to be experienced and felt.

Sure, the plot can be summed up, as it has been in other reviews, but the tone (which reminds me of the works of Franz Kafka, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Bernard Malamud) is harder to pin down.  I'd call it profoundly pessimistic yet transcendent, in this way very much like the Book of Job, and like The Brothers Karamazov, The Metamorphosis, and Miss Lonelyhearts.

I'd go even further and call it holy.

Keep in mind, though, that holy is not the milquetoast feel-goody praisiness of modern American religion, whether in Protestantism or New Ageism.  Holy is not about a certainty and knowingness that comes from faith or daily devotional bible readings; it is about mystery, the cloud of unknowing, and awe.

Sure, its principal association is with God, or Hashem.  But a sense of the holy can also be an atheist's sensitive response to nature or life or the human condition or great art, so that Robert Bresson, director of delicate yet sublime films like A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, Au Hasard Balthazar, and L'Argent, could think of himself as, as I do too sometimes, a "Christian atheist."

So now I reach the impasse that I knew I would hit soon enough.  I can no more review A Serious Man as review the panoply of stars on a clear night.  I'm not altogether sure that my feelings for this film will be analogous to other people's feelings for it.  I doubt that they will be, not that they would be unique to me either.

It's possible that my feelings read more into the film than draw out of it.

But in a year of several films that have affected me deeply in a variety of ways (Brüno, Away We Go, Where the Wild Things Are), the impact of A Serious Man has been the most profound of all.

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