sat 13/07/2024

A Serious Man | reviews, news & interviews

A Serious Man

A Serious Man

Mazel tov to the Coens for a cracking black comedy inspired by their Jewish roots

If you stick with the Coen Brothers' new film until the end of the final credit crawl, you will notice the legend, in small print, "No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture." I wouldn't be so sure: they certainly put their hero through the trials of Job. With a title like that, it ought to be a comedy, but the Coens customarily keep a protective, ironic distance from their fictional creations, and so you never really quite know where you stand with them.

Still, A Serious Man may be their most personal, most revealing movie yet.

It opens, disorientingly, in a lonely, snowbound shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe, some time near the start of the last century. A couple of peasants admit a old man  who may, or may not be, a dybbuk (evil spirit) into their cottage. The dialogue is in Yiddish. The brothers' movies have roved the length and breadth of America, but never ventured so far beyond its frontiers (unless you count their short for the compendium film Paris Je T'Aime). But here, clearly, we're not in Kansas any more.

SeriousMan3Flash forward to the main story. It plops us back in the Mid-West, a Minnesota garden suburb so new that it has no trees. The Coens grew up hereabouts. It is 1967 and Danny Gopnik (aged 13, as Joel Coen was in that same year) is more interested in smoking dope and listening to Jefferson Airplane than cramming for his bar mitzvah. (Right: Aaron Wolf, centre, as Danny, framed by Joel Coen, second left, and Ethan Coen, second right).

The film sketches in a hermetic, inward-looking community very far in spirit from the sophisticated, metropolitan/ cosmopolitan comedies of Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld. You have little sense of events in the wider world (even though this was the exact period of the Six-Day War). Goys are shadowy, indeed shady figures lurking on the fringes: aggressive neighbours trying to encroach on your land or Italian cardsharps or Korean students trying to buy or blackmail their way to a "passing grade". The Coens bring their unrivalled ear for dialogue and eye for curious, vivid details of behaviour to a milieu they know intimately well. There is a grisly, suffocating quality to their portrayal, although it's also steeped in a sort of quizzical  affection.

SeriousMan4A more conventional film, by, say, Barry Levinson, would be all about Danny and his urge to escape, but A Serious Man is more interested in another character: his father. Larry is a professor at the local university (as were the Coens' parents). A physics teacher, he covers his enormous wall-size blackboards with complicated algorithms which prove some principle or other beyond the shadow of a doubt. But nothing seems clear in his own life. His basket-case brother has come to stay, apparently indefinitely; his wife wants to leave him for a smug, clammy neighbour; his pending application for tenure is threatened by anonymous defamatory letters to the faculty; his daughter is stealing money from him for a nose job; and on and on it goes. 

It sounds like the stuff of sit-com, and the film does have a seam of absurd humour, but also a powerful undertow of despair. Larry - played by the Broadway actor Michael Stuhlbarg - is a nice, decent man, a mensch, and so he seeks guidance and solace from a suite of rabbis. But answer comes there none, apart from a cryptic anecdote about a dental patient, a gentile, who has a message in Hebrew engraved on the back of his teeth. If A Serious Man is a comedy about the meaning of life, its conclusion is that life is a cruel cosmic joke. And you don't have to be Jewish to get it: one of the film's running gags is that the elders in it are no wiser than anyone else.

What, then, was the point of the prologue? It could be - although such a crass explanation is never suggested - that those peasants were Larry's ancestors, and his line has been cursed by the dybbuk. Or perhaps the Coens are hinting that, despite the terrible watershed of the Holocaust, these ordinary-looking suburban Americans are still profoundly moulded by the mystical ancient myths and traditions of Eastern Europe. Maybe both storylines should be seen as different sorts of fables. We're no more likely than Larry to find enlightenment, however.

Serious_Man2For all its underlying bleakness, A Serious Man looks like a warm summery film, its palette dominated by rich oranges, yellows and browns. It might have no stars but does boast a marvellous array of character performances, anchored by Stulhbarg's immensely likeable Everyman. The Coens' work has rarely set the box-office ablaze and A Serious Man, with its intractable subject, will be no exception. Yet, for the discerning audience that will find it, it is enormously enjoyable, melding sharp humour with a satisfying seriousness of purpose. The brothers have been through a few mediocre patches in recent years, and their last film, Burn After Reading, looked very much like a relapse. But the calibre of this one proves that No Country For Old Men, which won four Oscars in 2007, including Best Picture, was no fluke. Mazel tov!


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