/ 14 May 2010

Paradox of cat in a box

Paradox Of Cat In A Box

Joel and Ethan Coen have book-ended the decade with a superb film at the beginning, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), and another two stormers at the end: their superlative adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men in 2007 and now A Serious Man, a sublimely funny, involving, utterly distinctive serio-comedy of mid-life crisis set in the American midwest in the 1960s, which happens to be where and when the Coen brothers themselves were brought up.

The Broadway actor Michael Stuhlbarg gets his big-screen break playing Larry Gopnik, a professor of theoretical physics whose life reaches a menopausal climacteric in mysterious tandem with his son’s approaching bar mitzvah and the astonishing announcement from his wife (Sari Lennick) that their marriage is over. She now wishes to divorce and to marry their supercilious acquaintance Sy Ableman, a smug and mellifluous widower played by Fred Melamed.

Larry’s life becomes unmoored and in his desperation this not particularly religious man becomes convinced that only the local senior rabbi can help him: a very elderly man who has retreated largely into gnomic silence. The movie convincingly brings us into Larry’s spacey state, somewhere between shock and trance, and brilliantly suggests that he is on the verge not of a breakdown — nothing so banal — but rather an epiphany, a vision of how he has erred, how he has lived and what the essence of his life should be as an observant Jew, a righteous person and a serious man.

This state of enlightenment, if any such can exist, is still impeded by the bizarre wreckage of his life: a malign neighbour, a malcontent student, a dangerously sexy neighbour who sunbathes naked and his useless, unemployed brother, Arthur, played by Richard Kind, working on his private work of kabbalistic mathematical philosophy.

The Coen brothers’ authorial identity as filmmakers has always marked out an intriguing spectrum between broad, bright comedy and bitter darkness and when their creations are pitched at just the right distance between each, the resulting film is a marvel. So it is here. It has something to do with the tonally elusive quality of the film and also with not using established stars — which makes sure that we do not get our bearings. Moreover, the Coens audaciously begin their film with a mysterious sequence in a 19th-century Polish shtetl: an unsettling folk tale drenched in mortality and fear. It starts the film the way it means to go on: uncomfortably.

A Serious Man had me gripped from the first frames and the film conjures a woozy, weightless feeling, combined with an almost hallucinatory clarity and heightened sense of itself. It’s a little like the feeling that migraine sufferers describe just before an attack. Yet what follows is no headache, but a superb and intelligent comedy.

As sympathetically played by Stuhlbarg, Larry Gopnik is a man who loves his job, and we often see him passionately writing out acres of formulae for his class, a job that, in those pre-PowerPoint times, has to be done with an old-fashioned bit of chalk. His special interest is demonstrating the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox, a proposition from quantum mechanics envisaging the incarceration of a cat in a box with a flask emitting radioactive poison, which, as time passes, may or may not have killed the cat. Until the box is opened and its contents verified, the cat is to all intents and purposes both alive and dead: a quantum system that is a mixture of states. As Professor Gopnik ponders the nearness of death in all our lives, the tininess of any one life and the vanishingly small difference between death and life, could it be that he is Schrödinger’s Cat, both alive and dead? The movie’s most bizarre twist puts Larry in a nasty car accident at the same instant that someone very important in his life is killed in a crash on the other side of town. A traumatising, Schrodinger moment.

He lives in a male world of teachers, professors and spiritual leaders, each with his own fierce secretary: women who seem to have been drawn by Gary Larson or Robert Crumb. In fact, Larry’s deadbeat, non-achieving brother Arthur, poring over his exercise book filled with occult symbols, reminded me a good deal of Crumb’s reclusive brother Charles, in Terry Zwigoff’s classic documentary study.

With the moments of disorientation (one is memorably aided by Jimi Hendrix on the soundtrack), there are colossal laughs. In the synagogue where the family has just attended a painful funeral, the Gopniks assemble for the bar mitzvah of their boy Danny (Aaron Wolff), who undertakes the ceremony substantially out of his head on marijuana, a state of mind that echoes his father’s mental stress and minor soft-drug experiments: another serendipitous, cosmic link.

Euphoric, sad and thoughtful all at once, this strange and wonderful film is rounded off with a gloriously well-crafted apocalyptic vision and a chilling intimation of divine retribution for earthly wrongdoing. The Coens have finished the Noughties as the United States’s pre-eminent filmmakers. —