4 January 2010 | secondtake
Moving, funny, complex, surprising, and often (often) brilliant
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.