Schadenfreude. It is an absolute must if you want to enjoy a black comedy. You, the audience member, have to be able to laugh at the misfortunes of others. Perhaps wryly, perhaps sympathetically or, if you're a real bastard, gleefully; all black comedies depend on your inherent level of cynicism.
Fortunately, it comes easy to most of us. To some degree or another, almost every film I've seen by Joel and Ethan Coen dabbles in the art of the gallows laugh. Anchored by either gripping drama to the near slapstick (and every genre in between), their predilection for finding mirth in unfortunate, sometimes violent, circumstances always lies just under the surface.
With their new film A Serious Man, their deadpan Midwestern comedic sensibilities are out front and center, and it is their best existential comedy of circumstance since The Big Lebowski.
After opening with a Yiddish parable of sorts, the film introduces us to Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). Larry is sort of a putz. He's not a bad man, and he doesn't have a bad life, but he's a pushover. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has been sleeping on the family couch for four months. His son and daughter are selfish, foul-mouthed narcissists who don't seem to care that their father is getting booted out of the house by their mother, Judith (Sari Lennick) so that she can marry a widowed family friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed).
When they ask that he should perhaps consider moving into a motel room, Larry is only capable of resigned cooperation. Larry is a physics professor, but things aren't going so well there, either. He's up for a long awaited tenure, yet an anonymous letter writer is urging that it be denied, and he accidentally accepts a bribe from a math-impaired Asian student for which the kid's father is willing to sue because Larry won't change the failing grade.
Sometimes Larry escapes to the roof of his house to fondle the television antenna, as if trying to tune into a transmission not of this Earth--until a nude sunbathing neighbor distracts him. Larry's verklemmt. Larry's looking for answers. Larry is a serious Jew.
Joel and Ethan Coen, once again writing and directing, are in top form with A Serious Man. They expertly pile on the unfavorable events with grim inevitability, while the laughs come from the deliberate pace, wry situations and characters, as opposed to conventional set piece gags. It's mature comedy that relies on funny characters instead of making fun of them, and when the Coens are hitting on all cylinders, it's effortless. No one does it quite like them.
Driven by their distinct ears for dialogue, and their eyes for a period setting (this film takes place in 1967), the Coens again exhibit their mastery at breathing depth and realism into creations that could easily be considered caricatures. Here they rely on their middle-class Jewish upbringing to render vividly Larry's life, family and spiritual plight, in the iconography and language of Judaism--sometimes hilariously when it appears Larry might be more imbued with faith than the rabbinical hierarchy from which he seeks answers.
The Coen's direction and writing achieve a difficult balancing act, providing a warm nostalgia that never overpowers the dark satire at work. They (with their go-to cinematography legend Roger Deakins) weave it all together into a delightfully satisfying whole. The film is steeped in religion (on a few levels, the Story of Job being one) and while you probably don't have to be Jewish to find it funny, it probably can't hurt (for the record, I'm not).
It also feels like their most personal film since Barton Fink. Much like that film, they have a palpable affection for not only the characters and their situations, but also for the very medium with which they are sharing the story with the audience. That might seem a little vague, but it is a hard-to-define quality that's been missing from their comedies for a while. This just feels more genuine.
The casting goes a long way there. Eschewing a plethora of famous faces definitely made the characters in A Serious Man easier to fall into. It's as if the Coens were trying to eliminate those distractions in the service of the film.
As character Larry Gopnick, actor Michael Stuhlbarg pulls off a tight rope act getting your empathy without being written off as an idiot. He's just dealing with an unprecedented string of bad luck. While he's eminently likeable, he's never pitiable, and he's too indefatigable to be considered weak. You just find yourself fruitlessly rooting for him as the Coens fuck with his life like cruel Gods.
Watching him, for some reason, made me think of that Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime," which could very well have been on the soundtrack if this film were set 13 years later. Jefferson Airplane and Santana play the musical supporting roles instead. In fact, they are plot devices.
Richard Kind (Paul Reiser's friend from Mad About You, for those that watched bad TV in the early '90s) is delightfully weird as Arthur Gopnik, Larry's loafing brother. He works diligently on a mathematical theorem that, on completion, should tie all the laws of reality together. Or something like that. Clearly he's nuts (though his ideas seem to help him cheat at cards), and I loved that the film never gave up much of a reason why. Particularly concerning a strange regimen involving a wound on the back of his neck. But again, while he is a funny character, the movie isn't making fun of him.
Woody Allen regular Fred Melamed plays the magnanimous Sy Ableman with such predatory understatement that his sheer gall almost makes him likeable, despite the fact he's the only genuine asshole in the film (unless you count Larry's lawyers). A couple of hilarious cameos by Michael Lerner and veteran comedic actor George Wyner provide some "Hey, it's that guy!" moments.
The Coen brothers have had their ups-and-downs during the last few years (High point: No Country for Old Men. Low point: The Ladykillers), but I never want to imagine a world where they can't get a smallish movie like this made or feel compelled not to make one. A Serious Man makes me think that is probably not something anyone will have to worry about for a while.
I know a few people who say they avoid stuff recommended by Oprah. I'm not a fan myself, but I saw Beloved years ago. That film had some pacing issues but was also weird, intense and compelling. Then after I had read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I learned that it had gotten O's Seal of Approval, as well.
The Road was a brutally uncompromising tale of a father and son struggling fruitlessly for survival in an incredibly grim and violent post-apocalyptic landscape. It was amazing, and I could not put it down. When someone told me the other day that they'd be skipping Precious because it had the taint of Winfrey, I responded by telling him, "I don't know, dude. Beloved was cool and The Road was great." Now, after seeing Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, any lingering skepticism I might have had about Oprah's sense of taste has pretty much evaporated. Maybe his will, too.
Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is a 16-year-old girl living in Harlem in 1987. She's morbidly overweight, basically illiterate and pregnant with her second child conceived with her pedophiliac father, himself a drug addict.
She named her first child Mongo (short for Mongoloid; the kid appears to have Down's Syndrome), and when her school learns of the new bun in the oven, she's suspended. Precious is testing high in math though, so she's accepted to an alternative school. Problem is she lives with her mother, Mary (Mo'Nique), an emotionally and physically abusive nightmare of a woman, whose interest in Precious is limited to the extra welfare money she collects and having someone to cook for her and play her lottery numbers.
She only wants to keep Precious down; and when anything threatens to disrupt that balance, the consequences manifest themselves--often violently. But Precious starts going to the alternative school anyway and immediately falls in with a conscientious, driven teacher with the unlikely name of Blu Rain (Paula Patton) and her class of troubled inner-city kids (though troubled would be a relative term, compared to what Precious has endured). Precious already fantasizes of being rich, white and famous, but with Ms. Rain she begins to see a real potential in herself that her stoic pragmatism, lack of education and hope had always blinded her to. To say much more would risk spoiling one of the most moving and powerful films I have seen this year.
What make Precious an expertly played one-two punch are the unflinching story and some great performances. I'll get this out of the way now (and I never thought I'd be saying this), but Mo'Nique deserves an Oscar nomination for this. As Precious, Gabourey Sidibe is the heart and soul of the film, to be sure, and her performance is equally deserving of a nomination. It's an amazingly vulnerable and very real piece of acting, made more believable by the fact that I've never seen her before. Precious is my only frame of reference for Ms. Sidibe's work. Mo'Nique, however, has been failing to impress me for years. She completely becomes Mary Jones. It's a performance as deprived of ego and artifice as any I've seen in years and she's utterly great. Who knew? After about five minutes I totally forgot about Soul Plane and completely re-evaluated my opinion of her talent.
Oddly, Mariah Carey also made me forget about Glitter. In her small role as the social worker, Mrs. Weiss, Carey sheds all of her glamour and blends in admirably making the most of her short, yet pivotal screen time. Delivering a turn as a nurse's aide, Lenny Kravitz blends in so well that I didn't even realize it was him until I saw the cast list. As nurse John, he might be the only man Precious ever met who actually cares about her. With Ms. Rain, Paula Patton imbues the role with empathy and wisdom, as a committed teacher who will do whatever it takes to make sure Precious doesn't give up on herself.
Director Lee Daniels ties it all together with gritty shot compositions and just letting his actors act. He's not afraid to fill the screen with the faces of his characters and let moments breathe with just the right rhythm. He shoots Harlem lovingly, letting its atmosphere seep into every frame of the film, whether in Precious' ramshackle apartment or the rundown 'hood she travels to get to her equally dilapidated classroom.
In a movie filled with emotional scenes, he never really crosses the line into melodrama or milks the film's most wrenching moments. Daniels is unafraid to follow through on the unflinching nature of the story and trusts that it is enough, only occasionally indulging in stylized flourishes that seem a bit out of place within the film's aesthetic.
It's been a few days now since I've seen Precious and it's not shaking off easily. I feel like I know Precious Jones and care about her. When a film becomes a transformative experience, when it gives you an unfettered mirror in which you not only see yourself but also acts as a portal you can step through, then you will know that you have seen cinematic alchemy.
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