"A Serious Man" ***1/2 (104 Minutes)

Thursday October 1, 2009

In terms of religion, how interesting to follow my last film ("The Invention of Lying") with this one, the latest offering by the brilliant & highly successful brothers Joel & Ethan Coen. Where Ricky Gervais considers a universe where everything appears to be morally correct and is devoid of religion, here is a narrative that immerses itself in it-more specifically the Jewish faith.

It reminds me of my hometown boy, Barry Levinson, who really made his mark and started to became bankable after working with Mel Brooks writing 1976's "Silent Movie" then Directing 1977's "High Anxiety". Then he won an Oscar for directing "Rain Man" in 1988. This success over the years allowed him the time/money to pursue his more personal "Baltimore" films ("Diner", "Tin Men", "Avalon", & "Liberty Heights"). In a way, this seems what the Coens have done; creating a film that you can tell comes as much from their heart and history than any of their previous works.

I ventured down to the fabulous AFI Silver to attend the screening complete with a wonderful Q & A (more on that later) with Michael Stuhlbarg who plays Larry Gopnik-the main character in the film whose entire world is about to crumble. Before we're introduced to him, though, we get a curious prologue set in a Polish shtetl where it seems the husband has invited a dybbuk (a demon) into the household. When his wife recognizes the dude for what he is (or may be) he is promptly dealt with that may, in its own way, be a curse or salvation-something we never know. However the tone of what follows is set: what happens to all of us during our lifetimes is never fully explained or understood.

This modern version of the Story of Job then flashes to 1967 in a northern town in Minnesota (both brothers grew up Jewish in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis) where our hero, Larry, is dealing with a multitude of problems. You know how people say that tragedies seem to come in 3's? Well for him, it seems that figure is multiplied by multiples of 3's. No matter where he goes or what he does, a dark cloud is above his Keppie (head for those of you not well versed in Yiddish) and storming over his brow.

How's this for starters: one of his pupils (Larry is a physics professor at the University of Minnesota) is concurrently bribing & blackmailing him(!); someone is trying to sabotage his attempt to get tenure by sending anonymous damaging letter to his superiors; his about to be bar-mitzvah son is more concerned about getting high than high grades; his teenage daughter is stealing money for that nose job she desperately "needs"; his immediate next door neighbor on one side hates Jews; the one on the other side is sex-crazed; not to mention his wife wants to leave him for his best friend, Sy Abelman. All the while, Larry, trying to keep stoic through all of this, starts seeking out advice/answers from the local rabbi's. How can the Almighty Being allow all of these travails from happening to such a "serious" man?! Like real life, no easy answers/explanations can be found. Larry is just trying to get by as best he can.

The brilliant script is matched by the Coens' forte: for the most part using little known or recognizable character actors that are incredibly believable. Michael Stuhlbarg is so perfect in the role that you'd think he was born to be Larry Gopnik. Known more for his theater work (Michael was nominated 4 years ago for a Tony for his role in "The Pillow Man", appeared on TV, and had a couple of minor roles in the films "Body of Lies" and this year's "Cold Souls"). While Fred Melamed (as Sy), Richard Kind (as Larry's live-in brother, Arthur who's constantly dealing with a draining neck cyst), Sari Lennick (as Larry's wife Judith), and Adam Arkin (the most famous name in the cast who plays Larry's divorce lawyer) are spot-on perfect!

The Coens' outstanding Director of Photography, Roger Deakins (who lately was also the DP for "Doubt", "The Reader", "Revolutionary Road", & "In the Valley of Elah") and their art department have created a 1967 suburban milieu that is stark and barren and I'm certain taken right out of their childhood. I love the look of the neighborhoods with the tiny lawns devoid of trees and shrubs. And the original music by their long time corroborator Carter Burwell is perfectly entwined with the music of the 60's that is craftily inserted throughout.

And don't feel you have to be Jewish to fully appreciate the movie, any more than you needed to be Italian to enjoy "The Godfather". Just sit back and let Joel & Ethan take you for a wild ride into situations & predicaments that, unfortunately, are common to us all.

The film is being platformed beginning October 2, opens in D.C. on October 9th, and probably in Baltimore on October 16th.
Following the film the audience was treated to a entertaining Q&A with Michael Stuhlbarg moderated by CBS News' Dan Reviv. Brought out during the interview and Q&A:

Michael revealed that his very first pre-professional performance was in "Bye Bye Birdie", ironically at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center. He has also appeared in the stage and film version of "The Grey Zone"-so there might be some type casting here.

He's currently working on the pilot of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" which Martin Scorsese is executive producer & directing, about the birth & high times of Atlantic City.

Eleven months before being hired, he tried out for the husband's part in the prologue and even got a Yiddish coach to learn Yiddish and to help in the dialect. However, the Coens ended up using actors from the Yiddish Theater Company in New York City instead. Six months later, he was called in to try out for the parts of Larry & Arthur and found out months later he received the lead role.

In talking about the Coens, he said that they actually are the editors and use the alias Roderick Jaynes ("Jaynes" was actually Oscar nominated for "No Country For Old Men"); they act as "2 sides of the same head" on the set often agreeing and never fighting; Joel does the actual directing while the slightly younger Ethan "holds his head down and paces around in the back of the room and just listens listens listens very carefully"; they storyboard every scene and are so totally prepared that the 2 month filming came in ahead of schedule and under budget.

Michael revealed that the 3rd head on the set was clearly their long time DP Roger Deakins who was quite the perfectionist (the results are clearly seen on the screen).

As for whether the film was biographical, Michael revealed that the Coens' parents were both professors (their father taught economics at the University of Minnesota) and that several of the character names were actual names from their past but, overall, the main story was somewhat fictional.

Sy (Fred Melamed) tries to confort Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg)
after informing him of his affair with Larry's wife
Joel & Ethan Coen on the set

CBS News' Dan Reviv (l) & actor Michael Stuhlbarg (r)

Actor Michael Stuhlbarg

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