Doodad Kind of Town

"A Serious Man" and "The Invention of Lying"
October 25, 2009, 8:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

For the second time this year, I’ve turned to a friend during the closing credits of a film and said “I’ve got to see this again in order to get my mind around it.”

The first time I said this was just after the closing scene of “Inglorious Basterds,”and the repeat viewing felt necessary in order to determine whether it was truly great or just overrated fanboy crap. The jury’s still out here on “Basterds;” that second viewing has yet to take place.

With the Coen Brother’s “A Serious Man,” however, I suspect the repeat viewing may take place as soon as next weekend, so anxious am I to revisit its pleasures and puzzle out the density of its layers of meaning.

If indeed there is anything there to puzzle out.

“A Serious Man,” while in many ways a radical departure and an uncharacteristically personal work for the Coens, is of a piece with the nihilistic tomfoolery in their most recent outing “Burn After Reading.” And it resoundingly reaffirms that film’s closing line: “What have we learned from this? Not a thing.” It’s many things all at once – a take-off on the Book of Job; an unsettling, absurdist meditation on human suffering and the limited efficacy of religion to help us make sense of it; and a meticulously detailed remembrance of growing up Jewish in the suburban Midwest of the 1960s. Ultimately it’s the kind of film in which the words to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” prove to contain more wisdom than those of three revered rabbis put together. But its final shot is every bit as ambiguously ominous as the conclusion of “No Country for Old Men.”

It opens in a Polish shtetl where a couple is visited by what may be either a kindly, elderly neighbor, or a dybbuk (demon) – if it’s the latter, they’ve been cursed by God. We never find out who the visitor really is; all too soon, we’re whisked into the opening credits and then to 1967 Minneapolis where we’re introduced to Lawrence Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). His doctor proclaims him a healthy man, and his college physics class stares glassy-eyed as he enthusiastically fills blackboards with convoluted equations that apparently describe how everything in the world works. When a character is introduced with such an assurance of his well-being and understanding, you can bet he’s in for a spectacular run of bad luck. And the bad stuff starts almost immediately.

First, his wife asks for a divorce so she can marry their widower friend, an unctuous, dulcet-voiced aging hipster named Sy Ableman (the wonderful Fred Melamed). Then his bid for tenure is threatened when an unnamed party begins writing letters to the tenure board describing Gopnik’s “moral turpitude.” The ne’er -do-well bachelor brother (Richard Kind, funny and poignant) who sleeps on his couch lives a secret life that finally and embarrassingly catches up with him. Cars crash. Legal bills mount. Lawrence suffers nightmares, considers taking a bribe from a student who would like a higher grade. He consults rabbis, searching for meaning and solace; in return, he gets an exhortation to find evidence of God in the beauty of the synagogue parking lot and a hilarious, but ultimately meaningless, tale about a plea for help carved into the inside’s of a goy’s teeth. (I can’t do it justice, I can’t. Just trust me.) And all the while, his son Danny is spending his days getting high in the boy’s room at Hebrew school, his daughter is forever trying to get in the bathroom to wash her hair, and the Gentile father-and-son next door glower at him between their vigorous backyard games of catch and hunting trips from which they return with a freshly killed elk strapped to the top of their station wagon.

Stuhlbarg, an acclaimed stage actor, was seemingly born to play stunned, comic incomprehension; he’s the perfect, beleaguered straight man to the coterie of lunatic characters that surround and bedevil him. Among a universally superb supporting cast, the standouts are Kind, Melamed and Amy Landecker (daughter of legendary Chicago DJ John “Records” Landecker, BTW) as the smoldering Mrs. Samsky, the Gopnik’s nude-sunbathing neighbor. And the Coens, as ever, have the greatest gift this side of Fellini for casting memorably funny/grotesque faces in minor roles. except this time, even the funny minor characters feel more authentic, as if they’re people the Coens remembered from their own early lives.

If you don’t already love the Coens, I suspect “A Serious Man” is not going to win you over. Those of us who delight in their particular brand of absurdity will find much here to love and be challenged by. And if you’re old enough to remember the 1960s, you may find nostalgic pleasures here as well. The wood panelled rec room walls, the hi-fis, the pictures on the walls, and the antenna on the roof that must be endlessly fussed with in order to get a clear picture on Channel 4 will all bring on a knowing smile. I’ve seen lots of movies set in the 60s, but can’t recall one that has so recognizably and authentically captured the domestic details of that era. They’re the kind of details that make “A Serious Man” feel so personal and specific and sets it apart from the Coens’ other work, even as its cynical, frequently cartoonish humor unmmistakably brand it as theirs.

In “The Invention of Lying,” a modest yet charming new comedy from British comic Ricky Gervais (he co-wrote and co-directed with Matthew Robinson in addition to starring), we’re transported to a world where human beings “have not evolved the ability to lie.” Actually it’s worse than that – they haven’t evolved the ability to withhold information. So not only does Jennifer Garner blurt out to Gervais at the outset of their blind date how unattractive she finds him, but the waiter at the restaurant greets them both with the revelation that “I’m embarrassed I still work here.” Strangers routinely confess to one another their deepest personal insecurities and miseries, all the while displaying a highly evolved ability to articulate their own emotional complexity. “I’m threatened by you because there are things about you I don’t understand,” Gervais slimy co-worker tells him. “And I don’t like things I can’t understand.”

Gervais plays a sad, schlubby loser who can’t score with his dream girl (Garner) and can’t hold on to his job, but he develops a miraculous talent. He discovers how to “say what isn’t” – to lie – and because he lives in a world where no lie has been told before, everyone believes him. His first trick is to withdraw more money from his bank account than it actually contains (“Our computer must be wrong!” the teller apologizes cheerfully as she hands him a hefty stack of bills), but soon he’s using his newfound ability to soothe the misery of those around him, assuring everyone from his suicidal neighbor (Jonah Hill) to the bickering couple at the coffee shop that everything is going to be ok.

“Invention” takes a particularly sly, subversive turn when Gervais tell his biggest lie. Undone by his dying mother’s fear that she’ll pass into eternal nothingness, Gervais assures her she’s going to a better place where she’ll be reunited with everyone she loves and she’ll have her own mansion. The credulous medical staff at his mother’s bedside are enthralled – soon word has spread that Gervais knows all about the afterlife. A mob appears at his door, and to appease them, Gervais delivers a list of informational tidbits about “the man in the sky” and the afterlife – it rapidly devolves into a fitfully funny Q&A about sin, God, Heaven and Hell. The scene feels as if it were lifted straight from “Life of Brian,” and it’s every bit as funny. Suffice it to say Gervais apparently feels very much the same about religion as does Bill Maher; unlike Maher, however, he’s not an asshole about it.

“Invention” is most satisfying when it pokes gentle fun at the kind of lies we sometimes have to tell ourselves and each other just to get through the day without slitting our wrists. It’s somewhat less successful as a romantic comedy. How is it that Gervais has managed to star in two of the smartest and sweetest rom coms of the past year (“Ghost Town” in addition to this), yet has never once been shown actually kissing the girl? “Invention” is tiresomely full of references to Gervais as a “little fat, snub-nosed” man; Garner dithers endlessly about whether to commit to him because she can’t face the prospect of bearing “little fat, snub-nosed” children. I guess I wouldn’t like Gervais as much if he weren’t so self-deprecating, but, jeez, he needs to give himself a break. Tall and chiseled is nice, Ricky, but smart and funny is a pretty sexy combo, too.

8 Comments so far
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Indeed Pat. The nihilism in BURN AFTER READING has overflowed into A SERIOUS MAN, and methinks Ethan's NYC stage work of the last few years also reflects this dark turn. But A SERIOUS MAN makes no pretenses (the ending makes one final dark twist)is definitely as you say here "a radical departure" and a personal work. It's also in my view one of their very best films and one I agree with you cries out for repeat viewings. I'd like to pay a second visit myself soon. What you say here about Stuhlbarg is so true:"Stuhlbarg, an acclaimed stage actor, was seemingly born to play stunned, comic incomprehension; he's the perfect, beleaguered straight man to the coterie of lunatic characters that surround and bedevil him."Beautifully-written and comprehensive re-cap.I'm perhaps not quite as fond as LYING as you are, and one reason is that the main conceit is not "lying" but rather "mind-control." The religious sub-plot was over-the-top and Gervais was more charming for me in GHOST TOWN.

Comment by Sam Juliano

I still haven't seen A Serious Man but feel certain I will love it or at least like it. Their nihilism is something that appeals to me. I'm not sure why characters that don't find meaning is not a valid subject to explore, again and again in fact but some people really hate their films for that reason. Like Roger Ebert says repeatedly , "It's not what the movie's about but how it's about it." I think their "how" is pretty damn good.

Comment by Greg

Sam – Thanks for the kind words. I, too, think this is one of the Coens' best, maybe their very best. I'm anxious to see it again.Greg- I used to be one of those people who was turned off by nihilism in general and by the Coens' last two films in particular. But over the last year or so, I've started to accept that a lot of what happens in life is random and senseless, and so films like "A Serious Man" have begun to bother me less and satisfy me more. (Maybe it's a function of age – with my 50th birthday about 2 months away, a lot of things are looking different to me these days.)

Comment by Pat

Though I'd like to see it again, it's only because I enjoy the Coens so much and want to give Serious another chance before writing it off completely. For a variety of reasons, it just didn't work for me.Ditto Lying, which wanted to be subversive and Liar, Liar at the same time and failed at both, and even worse – it wasn't that funny. Some inspired ideas and above average acting (how novel!) for a film of this genre, but overall not all that impressive.

Comment by Fletch

Pat, I finally saw the Coen flick yesterday, and was very impressed. I don't think it's a radical departure, though, what it reminds me the most of is "Barton Fink." Nihilism has always been their stock in trade; I think they're the model post-modern film-makers. More about that in my own write up, Any Day Now.

Comment by Rick Olson

Fletch -Sorry, I somehow missed your comment when it first appeared. I think "A Serious Man" defnitely needs a second viewing, although I'm still trying to get around to it myself.

Comment by Pat

Rick-Yes, I can see the similarities to "Barton Fink." What made this film seem like a departure to me was that it was so personal and specific to the Coens' own upbringing. It's an amazing film,so complex and layered. I think it may be the best film they've made to date.

Comment by Pat

I absolutely loved A Serious Man. I have to agree Sam, A Serous Man is one of the Coens' best. It is not too far off from their norm, but certainly enough off that many are not going to like it. It is super dark and has more questions than answers I believe. I think it is mysterious enough to actually buy and watch many times most likely. Although, I was very tired when I actually did see it so that probably did not help with my comprehension of such a complex film. Some moments had me burst out loud in theaters though, so it definitely instigated emotion.

Comment by Dave

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