27 November, 2009

But Seriously.... A Serious Man

Almost makes up for the Coen bros' previous "Burn Before Watching".

Suburban mid-sixties Judaism, summed up in a shaggy dog tale of Jewish guilt with a modern day sort-of-Job story. It perfectly captures the sense of uncertainty of God's intentions, and the reflective, almost paranoid self-judgement that inspires. The edgy unknowability of the righteousness of our actions in the face of the random punishment of the universe, which pervades Jewish folklore, mysticism and theology.

Putting that aside, it draws you in with a great central performance by the put upon Michael Stuhlbard, a physics professor who's uneventful life suddenly has to contend with unforeseen threats to his tenure bid, trouble with his marriage and family, an aggressive neighbor, and a possible bribery scandal.

Although I'm a big fan of the Coen brothers, I'd admit that one of there big failings is that many of their films seem to be about little more than their ability to show us how good they are at making them. This film has little or none of their self-conscious showiness, and for once it seems to be about something other than interesting camera moves, sly cinematic quotes, hyperstylized hollywood banter, or how many of their famous acting chums they can pointlessly shove before the camera (nadir of this tendency in aforementioned previous film).

It made me in particular, uneasily nostalgic. Although it is based on the Coen bros upbringing in a midwestern enclave with enough Jews for their own school system, an alien concept for a minority kid from an East Coast 'burb. We share the "Conservative" branch of Judaism that I was raised in. The production design includes a synagogue with a decor and design eerily similar to Ohev Shalom the schul I grew up with that my parents helped build in the early 60's (perhaps there is some Talmudic prescription for the mixture of wood panelling, brick and crimson carpet).

In retrospect, it almost seems like every Jewish guilt joke ever told, rolled up into one story, and retold, cruelly, unbearably straight. The enigmatic ending resonates with the folkloric prologue well after it's over.



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