Introduction to The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man
One from the vaults: my introduction to the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, which I gave at the Derby QUAD last December and, bafflingly, never got around to posting.
A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)
Only a few years ago, there was a fear that Joel and Ethan Coen – collectively, one of American cinema’s most distinctive voices – had passed their prime. In quick succession, they released two comedies – Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers – that were their most mainstream movies to date. Both films were mauled by the critics (especially The Ladykillers, an American remake of a much-loved British classic) but worse, audiences proved equally indifferent, with box office returns far below the bonanza anticipated from films starring George Clooney and Tom Hanks.
Of course, what a difference a few years makes. The Coens regrouped and came back fighting with their powerful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak crime novel, No Country For Old Men. Oscars were showered upon the Coens, and they quickly capitalised with their most star-laden project to date, Burn After Reading. Result: the Coens’ highest grossing films, with Burn delivering their biggest ever opening weekend – the statistic by which Hollywood tends to judge a film’s success or failure.
The Coens are dangerously close to becoming A-list directors. Despite earlier Oscars for Fargo, and the adoration granted to films like The Big Lebowski, their work has always appealed more to film buffs than casual cinemagoers, and nothing in their back catalogue matches their recent success in terms of cold hard cash.
But anybody expecting the Coens to sell out have got another thing coming. Joel and Ethan are, to put it mildly, contrary buggers – and tonight’s film, A Serious Man, is a black comedy about a Jewish professor in 1960s Minnesota, full of impenetrable Yiddish slang but absolutely zero movie stars in the cast. As critic Todd McCarthy puts it, “it’s the kind of picture you get to make after you’ve won an Oscar.”
However, this is nothing new. The Coens have made a habit out of such 180 degree turns – in fact, they’ve risen and fallen twice before, and both times, at the peak of their powers, they’ve chosen to make their weirdest and most personal films.
The Coens arrived almost fully-formed with 1984’s modern-day film noir Blood Simple, a debut of such control and ambition that, straight away, they were talked about with a mixture of admiration and genuine surprise. Who were these two geeky Jewish brothers, who seemed so unassuming and reserved in the flesh but were capable of such wit and violence on-screen?
The conundrum only intensified with the release of their follow-up, Raising Arizona, a cartoonish farce that was as light and charming as Blood Simple was dark and malevolent. The Coens, seemingly, could do anything: even their casting of rising stars Nic Cage, Holly Hunter and John Goodman hinted at an uncanny Midas touch.
The mainstream surely beckoned, but what happened next is instructive. Yes, the budgets got bigger, the canvases wider, but the films they made next were defiantly strange, and largely defined their inscrutable reputation for years to come. Mob pastiche Miller’s Crossing and the surreal art-house drama Barton Fink highlighted what was now unmistakably the Coens’ signature style – brutal violence, deadpan humour, quotable dialogue and a gift for images and set-pieces. Between then, the films offered a statement of intent: we play by our own rules. Literally, in Barton Fink’s case, which won so many awards at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival that the rules were changed to stop any future film hogging the limelight in the same way.
And then, confirming their stubborn refusal to meet expectations, the Coens went ahead and made a big Hollywood movie anyway. The Hudsucker Proxy delivered lavish sets, broad comedy and major stars in Tim Robbins and Paul Newman. Guess what? It bombed: it’s still their lowest grossing film at the U.S. box office. For the first time in their career, the Coens appeared to be over – a marginal concern, critically adored but unlikely ever to find success beyond the cult crowd.
At which point the wheel spins back to the beginning of the cycle. The back-to-basics Fargo – a return to the small-town crime genre of Blood Simple – was arguably their best yet, a double Oscar-winner and a modest but noticeable hit. Suddenly, the Coens were back in vogue and their response was to repeat the same helter-skelter pattern of madcap comedies (The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?), a bizarre art-house oddity (The Man Who Wasn’t There) and then that second ill-feted assault on the mainstream with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers.
If the pattern holds, the Coens’ next film might be something to worry about. But A Serious Man is a film to place alongside Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There at the obscure, arty end of the Coens’ storytelling spectrum.
What do these four films have in common? For starters, any of one might have been called A Serious Man. From Miller’s Crossing’s moody gangster Tom Regan, to the over-earnest playwright Barton Fink, to stern, silent Ed Crane, the eponymous Man Who Wasn’t There, you wouldn’t want to socialise with the film’s lead characters. Tonight’s ‘Serious Man,’ Larry Gopnik, is no exception… and the Coens have emphasised Gobnik’s plainness by casting Michael Stuhlbarg, a theatre veteran virtually unknown to movie audiences.
Why so serious? All of these men are out of their depth, victims of dangerous and perplexing circumstance. Tom Regan is caught up in a gang war so complex his friends and foes change with the wind. Barton Fink has swapped the cosy celebrity he enjoys on Broadway for lonely anonymity as a writer of Hollywood wrestling movies. Ed Crane gets caught up in a series of misunderstandings that leads to murder and the death penalty. You can expect more of the same tonight: suffice to say the Coens have claimed that A Serious Man is a retelling of the Biblical story of Job, the man abandoned by God to endure life’s suffering.
Another thing to point out is that, across these four films, the Coens’ serious men are all trapped in the past – or, at least, a version of it. The Coens have never been interested in telling history lessons. Their period pieces are postmodern fantasies inspired by the movies and novels of the time – they’re a means of satirising society’s changing attitudes, revealing the dark subtexts that contemporary filmmakers could only hint at, and asking with a raised eyebrow, Is this really how people used to live? In every case, it’s arguable that these men would have fared much better had they lived in different times.
A Serious Man’s 1967 setting should be a dead giveaway as to its fictional template: The Graduate. Released that year, it was the first major Hollywood release to visit the counter-cultural revolution from a Jewish perspective, and became an instant classic for its frank and ambiguous treatment of the generation gap and the battle between the sexes. But to the Coens, themselves Jews who grew up during the 60s, the bed-hopping misadventures of Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock must have looked like the most exciting thing possible. Could A Serious Man be a wry acknowledgement of the far less glamorous and more mundane lives of most Jews of the time? Larry Gobnik might almost have been Braddock’s tutor, blissfully ignorant of his student’s dramatic social life.
Alternatively, might Gobnik be a version of Joel and Ethan’s own father? After all, Minnesota was where the Coens were brought up; in 1967, Joel was 13, and Ethan 10; their parents were university professors. Is A Serious Man autobiographical? It’s doubtful… but it does seem that, the odder the film, the closer the Coens seem to get to their own identity. Amidst all the betrayals and shootings, Miller’s Crossing is a tale about two friends, practically brothers, trying to get on with each other. The Man Who Wasn’t There reveals that even the most outwardly inconspicuous and uncommunicative person has a memorable inner life. And Barton Fink concerns an acclaimed Jewish creative at war with the crass commercial imperatives of Hollywood.
Of course, this being the Coen Brothers, there’s no sentimentality or mawkishness to these stories – in fact, they head the opposite way into head-scratching surrealism. But these are probably the Coens’ most personal statements and, as such, the kind of films the Coens can only make when their joint career is on a high. Right now, they’ve never been hotter – and their first instinct has been to bring their worldview all the back home to their Minnesota childhood. As a result, A Serious Man is probably the nearest we’re ever going to get to knowing the Coen Brothers. Enjoy.
I’ll post my review of A Serious Man later. Or you can check out other film introductions elsewhere on this blog:
My most recent intro, on Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, can be viewed on the Derby QUAD’s own blog, which is where the texts of all future talks will go.
In the meantime, should anybody need a film introducing, give me a call. I also do bar mitzvahs.