A comedy with a whole lot of tsuris

November 6, 2009

Some writers say that the difference between a comedy and a tragedy is that the former begins with a bummed out protagonist and ends with a happy one while the latter starts with a happy protagonist and ends with a bummed out (or dead) one. So how do we classify the new Coen brothers movie, “A Serious Man,” that is a downhill slope from beginning to end? In this critic’s humble opinion, hilarious.

Hollywood unknown Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a physics professor and father in the 1960s Jewish suburbs of Minnesota, an ostensible mensch who suffers a string of highly unfortunate events. His wife, Judith Gopnik (Sari Lennick) demands a divorce so she can marry the uproarious, bear-like, underhanded Cy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Then he gets caught in a scam compromising his academic integrity. Later he and his nebish brother (nisht a kluger, you might say) are forced to move into a motel. The list goes on.

But the film isn’t really about the plot. Yes, we cringe every time Larry slides a notch down, but after a while we get the pattern. The Coens don’t want us to lament the fate of this more or less innocent fellow. They want us to see ourselves in him. This identification might seem more geared toward Jewish audiences, but the issues explored go much deeper into the universal human experience. It’s as if they want to establish shlimazil as an existential category.

As Larry embarks on his quest for meaning, it’s hard to sustain the initial superiority we feel over the protagonist. Stuhlbarg’s acting does a great deal to keep the pathos from becoming overwhelming. Somehow he manages a kind of high-strung buoyancy that belies the “seriousness” of the title. Ultimately, however, the story makes us feel more uneasy than smug when we think about how Larry’s story intersects with our own.

The Coens cleverly reveal how the Uncertainty Principle Larry teaches in his physics classes ultimately comes back to haunt his personal life. He desperately and naively begs guidance from a series of rabbis, which even in sixties American suburbs serve as the ultimate repositories of wisdom. Most troubling are not the incidents that appear meaningless but the ones that seem fraught with meaning that proves inaccessible. Larry wants the hidden formula for the dismal facts of his life, but the rabbis’ answers only point back to uncertainty.

There has been some contention as to whether this film is typical of the Coen catalogue or a standout. To the extent that it employs absurd comic situations, involves dark subject matter and explores the idiosyncrasies of a particular subculture, I feel it hits the mark. But the fact that it doesn’t strongly resemble any one film in their filmography serves as a testament to the new territory this film mines.

Structurally, “A Serious Man” does include some Coen hallmarks that keep us anchored amidst the chaos that engulfs Larry’s life. For example, the film begins and ends in the same place, making us question whether anything has actually changed. And then there are those wacky dream sequences that serve as parallel universes guided by Larry’s unconscious desires.

Overall, however, it’s really the painfully earnest humor that makes this flick a mekhaye. It’s not the standard, “life sucks so let’s laugh about it” formulation, but the more Woody Allen-esque notion that the humor is found at the root of life’s misery.

Even if you’re not a fan of religious pessimism, see “A Serious Man” for the belly laughs. You’ll be glad you did, beemes.

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