A Serious Man, ★★★★½ Where the Wild Things Are,★★★★
A Serious Man sets its own (rather Orthodox) stage in a rather unorthodox manner. We're deep within an ancient Jewish legend, in which a supposedly dead man comes to the door of a couple he knows (or should I say "knew?"). The woman of the house stabs him right in the chest, so sure is she that he is a ghost or evil spirit. The husband is aghast, as the man appears to bleed to death. But is he a ghost or not? The story doesn't say. That's not the point. Frustrating, right?
That's the world of A Serious Man and its lead, Larry Gopnik ( ). In the middle of a great number of crises ― marital, career, fatherly, neighborly ― Larry is continuously advised to seek comfort in his Jewish faith. The harder he tries, the more he learns that his Jewish tradition is more about pondering crises than solving them...just like in the legend that starts the film (which, by the way, is never referenced again).
This masterpiece of contemplation was written and directed by the Coen brothers, and is probably their most thoughtful film. It also holds the title of Most Jewish Movie I've Ever Seen. Despite its frequent, VERY black humor, it is a rather challenging film to watch if you're expecting a conventional problem-solution-new problem-ultimate solution story arc. That it has none is the whole point of the film. Can you deal with that?
A Serious Man, ★★★★½
Where the Wild Things Are,★★★★Sometimes you can like, even love, a film with your gut but the reasons why remain elusive. A Serious Man and Where the Wild Things Are have this quality in common. Both films explore the psyche of their main characters, visually and through mysterious but fascinating dialogue. Sure, those main characters are pretty different – in the former, a middle aged Jewish man in the 1960s and, in the latter, a modern 8ish-year-old – but the two filmic methods seem strangely similar. Do the movies share any other traits? It seems unlikely, but I'm going to look. Like these movies, I'm diving into the realm of the impossible.
OMG! Hey! That last paragraph (minus the Jewish part and the Coen brothers part) could be repurposed for a review of Where the Wild Things Are! Another similarity. I knew we could do it.
Spike Jonze adapted the famous Maurice Sendak book only with the author's seal of approval, and this was no small feat when you consider that Sendak's original was a 48-page picture book. This left Jonze with countless opportunities to embellish on the details of hero Max, his life, and his experiences with the Wild Things, and Jonze took every one of them. Few of the movie's events are familiar to us from the famous children's book, but the film manages to retain the book's mood nonetheless. This can be largely attributed to the fabulous performance by unknown () who was picked from outside The Biz for his spirit and character. Also unchanged is the core event of the story: Max, after acting out at home and being scolded, escapes to a (fantasy) land where he keeps wild things from killing him by saying he's a king who can magically solve all their problems.
Hmm…an unrealistic desire to solve problems? Escape from personal crisis? There may be more similarities between these two movies than I ever imagined.
One gets the feeling that some hours of serious thought will unravel WIld Things' web of symbols and metaphors, but it's a nut I've yet to crack. Like Serious Man, this film's rich detail and mysterious twists add to its allure. Even so, a lack of answers could demonstrate the purity life's mysteries, but it can also demonstrates lazy editing. Much of Wild Things perfectly captures the ethereal childhood melancholy few movies can approximate, but every so often the drama feels like nonsense. I can't tell if that's part of some master plan on Jonze's part or of it's...well...a mistake. Do Jonze or (co-writer) Dave Eggers (or anyone that works for them) make mistakes? Now there's a mystery to ponder.
I really liked both of these films, but ultimately feel that A Serious Man is a superior film, if only because it's easier to explain why I like it: great writing, great acting, a clear message in spite of its theme of fogginess. Wild Things had all of these but the last. Of course, my rating, unlike this review, is not a comparison of the two movies, and both films are very, very worth seeing. Just another thing they've got in common.