I love Woody Allen films. To be more specific, I love Woody Allen films that actually have Woody Allen acting in them: think “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan” or at the sillier end “Bananas” and “Sleeper.” It’s the neurotic, uptight and slightly hapless nature of his characters (all basically a flimsy parody of himself) that makes me love these earlier Allens so much.
“A Serious Man”, the Coen Brothers most recent and Oscar-nominated movie, follows on somewhat from this premise. It’s a film about Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics lecturer who’s locked in a loveless marriage, has two troublesome children, a brother with serious social problems and is doing his best to advance in his career. His life begins to spiral out of control as his wife demands a Gett (that’s a divorce that allows her to remarry in the church), his son keeps getting stoned in the days leading up to his Bar Mitzvah and he’s hassled at work by a South Korean boy and his family who try to bribe Larry into giving him a passing grade.
It’s a film that centres almost entirely over Larry’s increasingly fragile mental state which is consistently shaken by a series of unfortunate events. Stuhlbarg is quirky and completely likable as Larry: so likeable in fact that in the closing scenes you can’t help but feel completely sorry for him. Joel and Ethan Coen handle the subject matter deftly, applying their magic touch which is clean, precise and lets the acting do the talking. They don’t litter the film with any ambitious shots, making you feel completely at home.
Indeed, there are two elements in the movie that make this story of Jewish karma and neuroses stand out from the rest. The editing is brilliantly put together, effectively using cross-cutting to make you see scenes in a certain light. At the same time sequences where characters have taken drugs are framed with a haze that creates a dreamlike atmosphere. But during dream scenes the camera is simple, the editing basic. This is all designed to eventually shock you when certain events “happen” only to be revealed as false and thought up by Larry’s shattered brain. These frights of course are typical of the Coens, who never fail to insert a shock or two even in their most sedate films.
The screenplay also has a zing that is missing from most dark comedies. The Coens do this kind of twisted humour so well: events on paper must seem quite farfetched but in their hands the storylines are not only completely believable but also engaging and hilarious, much like Woody Allen’s work. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who could make this film work in such a wonderful way. It’s never boring and even scenes that are eventually said to be completely useless (like the story about the message in the teeth) have their place in this altogether twisted tale. Besides, where else would you see a young boy stoned at his own Bar Mitzvah?
Verdict: They’ve done it again! “A Serious Man” fizzles with energy, has completely human and funny performances and is a lovely Allen-esque insight into the Jewish mind. All to the sound of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love”!