Monday, April 5, 2010

A Not-So-Serious Man

A quick way to gauge whether you're a "pretentious" filmgoer or not is to consider your reaction to 2007's Best Picture Oscar winner, "No Country for Old Men." Were you left confused by the ending, that dispatched one main character without fanfare and left the other to close us out with a moody, highly symbolic monologue? Or did you spend the next few hours or days or weeks trying to puzzle out what it all meant? And if you picked the latter option, did you enjoy the process of trying to decode the film? If you did, you might just be a film geek.

Most movies these days are not for the geeky among us. Rather they're designed to be disposable entertainments, heavy on the upfront thrills and light on lingering substance. Overanalytical types might have fun trying to sort out color symbolism from the "Transformers" movies, and cultural watchdogs might suss out embedded gender role messages in "The Hangover," but any deeper meanings found in these films are usually inadvertant ones. More ambitious fare like "Gone Baby Gone" or "The Hurt Locker" might contain pointed social or political messages, but it's the message that's meant to be discussed rather than the actual form or presentation of the film itself.

So it's a rare piece of cinema that you can take apart scene by scene or even frame by frame and know that the filmmakers involved actually intended for you to. The Coen Brothers are among the few directors who can get away with making pictures like this consistently. The other notable I can think of off the top of my head is David Lynch, whose "Mulholland Drive" has inspired mountains of analysis by everyone with access to a copy of the film and the Internet. Their films, replete with ambiguous endings, mysterious objects, and elliptical dialoge, seem to cry out for interpretation. What does it mean? What does is all add up to?

The Coen's latest, "A Serious Man," is a merciless tease for film geeks who love to dissect their films. The protagonist, a Jewish physics professor played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is plagued with personal and financial calamities that seem to come out of nowhere, and is deperate to find some sort of spiritual explanation for his troubles. Multiple characters give their opinions, including three different rabbis with three different approaches to the situation. The movie ends with all the questions unanswered, but many possible keys to interpretation are left dangling in front of viewers' noses.

Which one of the rabbis was right? Are all of them right? If Stuhlbarg's character is being punished, what is he being punished for? Or is he just unlucky? And what do we make of the prologue with the Jewish folktale of the dybbuk, played by beloved Jewish stage actor Fyvush Finkel? And how do the constant references to mathematical equations, F Troop, Jefferson Airplane, and Jewish theology fit into this? And even more maddening, it's very likely that the point of the story may be that it's ultimately pointless to try to determine what God wants, so we should learn to accept that we'll never know what God wants. Stuhlbarg's character can easily be seen as a stand-in for the viewer, still trying to figure out what Anton Chigurh was supposed to represent.

"A Serious Man" reminded me a lot of "Donnie Darko," which was similarly concerned with ominous higher powers and obtuse symbols of impending doom. "Darko" took itself much too seriously, though, dripping with adolescent angst and soapbox diatribes. The Coens take a much livelier approach, setting their story in the 1960s, in a midwestern Jewish community populated by very distinctly drawn suburban characters who are just shy of caricatures. One suspects the directors drew heavily from their own childhoods as an influence. At times the film is very funny, with moments of sublime absurdity, especially after Stuhlbarg's stress level spikes and he starts to have unsettling dreams.

I wonder if the Coens have made a film that the casual watcher will get more out of than the obsessives this time around - assuming they're not put off by an apparent cliffhanger ending. By reading too much into the story, it's easy to overlook the sillier, warmer moments and some great comic performances. Even the epigraph at the beginning warns us to "[r]eceive with simplicity everything that happens to you." Maybe that's the great sin that our protagonist is being punished for - succumbing to temptation and taking everything much too seriously.

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