Friday, September 18, 2009

Oy vey, such a film you should see

serious.jpgThere is something about the Jewish way of humor and storytelling I've always found enormously appealing. I memorized material by Henny Youngman and Myron Cohen at an age when, to the best of my knowledge, I had never met a Jew. I liked the rhythm, the contradiction, the use of paradox, the anticlimax, the way word order would be adjusted to back up into a punch line. There seemed to be deep convictions about human nature hidden in gags and one-liners; a sort of rueful shrug. And the stories weren't so much about where they ended as how they got there.

The serious man is consoled by the friend who has stolen his wife

The Coen brothers' new film, "A Serious Man," tells a Jewish story. It is largely about misery and bad luck, and it's very funny. Its hero's first two words must have been oy vey. The Coens, who have a way of following their vision with unwavering consistency, do not flinch from the problems of poor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), which include a wife, son and daughter who cause him misery, a deeply flawed brother-in-law who has taken up residence on the sofa, three rabbis who are no help, and an exhibitionist neighbor who goes heavy on the eye liner and smokes during sex. If you aren't Jewish when you go into this movie, you may be when you come out.

I want to briefly discuss several films I've seen at Toronto his year, so this isn't the time for a full-dress review. But let me praise the brothers, Ethan and Joel, for making no attempt to "mainstream" the story in a misguided attempt to appeal to the goyim. Being specific makes their movie more accessible, not less, because there's some Larry Gopnik in all of us.

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