Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Review by Mike D’Angelo
Posted on 12 September 2009
Source Focus Features 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival
Joel and Ethan Coen have been accused of many sins over the years – gratuitous mockery being the most common (not to say knee-jerk) charge – but commercial calculation certainly isn’t one of them. Having improbably hit the quasi-mainstream jackpot with their sixth feature, Fargo, they made no effort whatsoever to replicate its unexpected success, declining to set another picture in their native Minnesota until now, 13 years later. And lest the marketing department get too excited about the prospect of another potential crossover hit, the Coens have cast A Serious Man almost entirely with unknowns, handing the lead role to stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg and surrounding him with local non-pros. (William H. Macy and Frances McDormand weren’t household names, but at least a few people had heard of them.) On top of which, their explicit subject this time is Midwestern Judaism circa the mid-1960’s, which for most of America constitutes a milieu more exotic than Middle Earth. All in all, A Serious Man may be the most admirably perverse undertaking since Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima.
Which doesn’t make it any good, alas. Obviously I’m in the minority, but for me, Fargo remains one of the Coens’ weakest pictures, a cavalcade of mildly amusing tics straining for significance, and A Serious Man, though in a decidedly different register, only confirms that the brothers tend to falter whenever they abandon genre pastiche and make a conscious effort to do something personal. Self-examination makes them pretentious.
You can see them flailing right from the prologue, set centuries ago in a Polish shtetl. Prodding the viewer with ancient Jewish folklore (specifically the dybbuk), it’s the kind of rhetorical flourish you use to demonstrate your heavily symbolic intentions, and the (comparatively) modern-day tale that follows is at once anecdotal and ponderous. Our dithering hero is Larry Gopnik, a schoolteacher on the verge of tenure, who suddenly finds his world caving in around him in the days and weeks leading up to his son’s bar mitzvah. His wife calmly announces that she’s leaves him for another man; his unemployed brother, camping out in his house, endlessly occupies the bathroom tending to a sebaceous cyst on the back of his neck; one of his students is alternately attempting to blackmail and sue Larry into giving him a passing grade; and the head of the tenure committee reports that they’ve been receiving nasty, anonymous anti-Larry hate mail.
Despite having deliberately avoided reading anything about A Serious Man prior to seeing it, I have the vague sense (based on conversations that I quickly cut short) that it’s being criticized in some quarters as an example of Jewish self-loathing. That’s a minefield I’m not sure I’m ready to step into, at least after a single viewing. The only thing I’ll say at this point is that I don’t really buy the Coens’ argument, outlined in the press notes, that they’ve simply cast the authentic Midwestern Jews they grew up around, rather than the vaguely Semitic-looking actors who tend to find success in Hollywood. Apart from Stuhlbarg and a few others, the people in this movie don’t much resemble Joel and Ethan; most of them seem to have been selected solely for their physical appearance, and at times there’s almost a Fellini-carnival feel to the physiognomy-fest.
That said, though, what concerns me isn’t the brothers’ humanist bona fides so much as the way that their allegorical approach to filmmaking falls apart whenever they go home. Because it’s set in Minnesota and focuses so methodically on a particular subculture, A Serious Man can’t help but come across a bit like Fargo 2: Electric Boogajew. In truth, though, the previous Coen Bros. movie it most closely resembles, both structurally and thematically, is Barton Fink, their brilliantly surrealist parable of a (Jewish) playwright who sells his soul in Hollywood. Like Barton, Larry Gopnik is a well-meaning little man inhabiting a nightmare world in which he’s assailed for crimes both real and imagined; the films share a shaggy-dog structure and a penchant for obscure symbolism, with e.g. A Serious Man substituting a hotcha neighbor who sunbathes in the nude for the painting of the woman on the beach that commands Barton’s attention in his L.A. hotel room.
More telling than the similarities, however, are the differences. In Barton Fink, the Coens remain securely hidden behind a welter of cinematic and literary allusions: George S. Kaufman, Louis B. Mayer, Clifford Odets, Wallace Beery, William Faulkner, etc. They’re in no way exposed, and that frees them, paradoxically, to fashion something deeply intimate. In effect, A Serious Man is the same movie stripped of all distractions, and what it reveals is that those distractions were absolutely crucial. What was glancing and productively ambiguous when buried in the Coens’ imaginary version of ’30s Hollywood becomes weirdly didactic now that it’s been placed front and center, and their strenuous efforts to render it offbeat come across as bloated pretension without any genre trappings to fall back on. (The final shot is almost laughable in its earnest, head-clonking pseudo-significance.) It’s their most nakedly personal film, and I say: Get dressed, fellas.
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