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Review of A Serious Man

August 26, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 2 Comments

To complement the introduction to A Serious Man I posted earlier, here’s a review of that there film.  Excuse the slight overlap in content!

A Serious Man
(Joel and Ethan Coen, US, 2009)

aka Coenworld – the origins story, where Joel and Ethan strip back the style and head straight for the source of their extraordinary imaginations

By now, it’s pretty clear that we’re in the middle of the third cycle of the Coen Brothers’ career. Each new spin always kicks off with a terse, tense and acclaimed crime story (Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country For Old Men), end with a mainstream failure (The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers, who knows?) – but in between, Joel and Ethan get to make one of their weird, personal films. Now, joining Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There in the latter category is A Serious Man… and with their critical and commercial rep never higher, they’ve been able to create arguably their weirdest and most personal movie to date.

On the surface, it’s another of the Coen’s note-perfect period pieces, conjuring a tangible story-world through music, fashion and Roger Deakins’ chameleonic camerawork, here taking on the atmosphere of a semi-faded Kodak moment. But something else is going on here. Where all too often the Coens favour a Brechtian self-awareness of the falseness of their fantasies, here the strangeness of the story derives from not style but substance. For once, the Coens have taken us not into a fever-dream of imagination but a recreation of a time and place – 1967 Minnesota – in which the Coens actually lived.

It’d be a stretch to say that this is autobiographical, but there’s an eye for truth and detail that smacks of personal experience. The film feels, for want of a better world, ‘real,’ something of a rarity for the Coens, yet fits right into their worldview. Possibly, it even explains where many of their ideas come from. The Jewish community seen here lives in parallel to – but not quite alongside – the goyish world, and that uneasy neighbourliness highlights how many of the Coens’ characters have lived in similar microcosms, ignored or misunderstood by the mainstream. The language, too, is a treasure trove of Yiddish concepts and slang, often graspable only by its context, which is as evocative as, say, the gangster slang of Miller’s Crossing.

The Coens’ trust in the cinematic pleasures of this world allows a much plainer, undecorated sense of style than is common for one of their comedies. Usually, we’re bombarded with self-consciously postmodern riffs on old movies and novels but overt references to A Serious Man’s obvious touchstone – The Graduate – are conspicuous only by their absence. And the performances lack any trace of larger-than-life cartoonishness. Instead, an unstarry cast, led by a sympathetic, carefully nuanced performance by Michael Stuhlbarg, is utterly convincing as people you might actually meet. Eccentric, sure, but not crazy.

All of which works in tandem with the film’s muted, shabby-chic drama – a story of tiny incidents snowballing into a plausibly infuriating mid-life crisis. Can’t make a mountain out of molehills? Watch the Coens turn every new setback into another trek further away from base camp. The narrative structure is intricately, painstakingly built without ever needing the foundation of the big set-piece they’re capable of…although there are certainly scenes to savour, like a stoned bar mitvah or the meticulous editing with which they fashion one of cinema’s weirdest shaggy dog stories.

The minimalism is deliberate, as the film’s theme is exactly about the process by which we react to life’s problems, and the meanings we draw from them. Jewish faith is inextricably linked with the process of parable, and finding the answers to life through the wisdom of observation. But what place is there for that old-school thinking in the modern world of physics and Schrodinger’s Cat? This is a film about how science and religion alike deal in the uncertainty principle…but above all it’s a reminder that the Coens’ storytelling has always thrived on the same thing.

This is the third Coen film in a row to bewilder audiences with a self-consciously enigmatic ending, the narrative stopping dead with neither closure nor satisfactory explanation. What’s unusual here is that the film begins in exactly the same way, with an oblique prologue that may or may not relate to the wider story. You could spend a lifetime going crazy thinking about how all of these things tie together, but that’s the point. Simply in creating those conditions – by placing the cat into the box, if you like – the Coens can avoid becoming serious men. Let the audience worry about answers; the filmmakers are otherwise engaged in the business of having fun.

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  1. Jack GrahamAug 26, 2010 at 9:01 pmReply

    Great review. I love the way you connect the personal feel of the film to the Coens' roots and their other work. Very convincing.

    The "atmosphere of a semi-faded Kodak moment" is particularly fine and immediately expresses the film's look perfectly.

    This paragraph also hits the nail right on the head:
    "Jewish faith is extricably linked with the process of parable, and finding the answers to life through the wisdom of observation." But the uncertainty principle undermines all observation!

    It reminded me of Kafka, which comes via a tradition of Jewish storytelling. Kafka is much wittier and more playful than some people think, as is so much of the Jewish storytelling that he grew up with. Of course, this film is full of (Jewish) storytelling – hilarious, farcical, affecting, far-fetched, cryptic. Like Job, Larry is seemingly persecuted by God (if you read 'Job', God torments the man for a dare, like in 'Trading Places'!) Like one of Kafka's characters, Larry Gopnik is bemused by the assaults of a crazy outside world which seems to both persecute and blame him. His family tell him all manner of tales. Sy Ableman – the serious man… i.e. the liar and cheat and hypocrit and malicious poison pen writer – says there's been no hanky panky with Larry's wife? Yeah right. The Second Rabbi tells Larry the tall tale about the goy with a message from HaShem written on his teeth… which becomes a parable about accepting that parables are meaningless. Larry's brother has a book by Abba Eban, a spinner of tales himself, being one of the most subtle of Israel's many apologists.

    The Jewish world in 1967 Minnesota is, as you say, a parallel world to the rest of goy America (a bit like the parallel universes Larry might teach about) and it throws both worlds into relief. Larry is nervous of his ultra-goy neighbour who is encroaching upon his lawn (wanting 'living space' perhaps?) to the point of dreaming that he will turn homicidal. Meanwhile, Larry is as baffled by his Korean student as the assorted goy authority figures are by Larry's Jewish customs. And yet the goy next door seems almost defensive of Larry when the student's father appears!

    I love the way that Clive thinks all he has to do to pass Physics is to remember the story about the cat. He doesn't realise that he also has to grasp the underlying logic (the maths)… there's Arthur's 'Mentaculus' which looks like deranged ravings, high-level physics or the Kabbalah, which claims to be the numerology (or maths) of reality itself…

    Isn't this film about trying desperately to grasp the underlying logic of the incomprehensible symbols and equations of life? And perhaps finding that there is no underlying logic? Just unfair randomness? Nah, this is more than just a movie "about" anything. It has resonances rather than "meanings"… like life itself. Like the First Rabbi, who (rather desperately) sees the existence of HaShem from looking at a car park, we're just trying to see some pattern.

    They even cheekily suggest an underlying logic so corny that it has to be a prank at our expense: the curse of the dybbk, or a curse from God for killing a holy man, passed on to the third or fourth generation!

    Sorry to rattle on, but I just LOVE this film.

  2. Simon KinnearAug 31, 2010 at 2:48 pmReply

    Cheers Jack.

    Revisiting my articles – and getting responses like this – make me appreciate the film all the more. I'm thinking, given time, it might become my favourite Coens film of the lot.

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