26 Nov 2009

A Serious Man

After the back-to-back success of No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers suddenly find themselves occupying a unique and exalted position within Hollywood, one that has been denied them throughout their career. Critical darlings ever since their stunningly assured debut Blood Simple, mainstream success has long eluded them, but with two consecutive hits under their belt they find themselves being able to pick and choose the projects they want to make. Rather than waste their moment in the sun, they capitalised on it to make potentially the most autobiographical film of their career. A Serious Man is the tale of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) a Jewish academic whose life begins to unravel in a modern day retelling of the book of Job. After an inexplicable prequel in which a 19th century peasant stumbles on an old Hasid who is possibly a Dybbuk, we move to Memphis and 1967. The setting may be more contemporary, but the subject matter is still slightly impenetrable. It may have been critically lauded for its many comic moments but make no mistake, A Serious Man is a serious film, surprisingly so in many scenes.

Unlike the two projects that preceded it, this is most definitely a film set within that unique place called the “Coenverse”. Technically there are few surprises, Roger Deakins again works as cinematographer and his wide-angled lens is always in the right place, and Carter Burwell’s minimalist score evokes his work on No Country. Thematically, all the usual hallmarks are there too. Naturalistic dialogue, sudden unexpected violence, bizarre and impenetrable dream sequences, and of course, Judaism. From the Yiddish prequel onwards, this is a film obsessed with its Jewish identity, and some portions may be hard for non-believers to appreciate. What is more surprising though, is that for the first time Joel and Ethan don’t appear to be viewing their upbringing with much in the way of affection. Gone is the affectionate ribbing of Walter Sopchek’s refusal to bowl on Shabbus in The Big Lebowski, the community that Larry and his family inhabit is stifling, repressive, and often incomprehensible. All of this adds up to make a rather unique entry into the Coen canon. It isn’t as moving and profound as Barton Fink or The Man Who Wasn’t There, nor as laugh-out-loud hilarious as Lebowski or Raising Arizona. The most obvious comparison in their body of work would be Fargo, and this feels slight by comparison. The warm humanist message of Marge Gunderson is one of the few times in their career where meaning is explicitly stated in one of their films. A Serious Man is far more ambiguous, even maddeningly so. When a movie spends ten minutes telling you a joke with no punch line don’t be surprised if said movie has no ending. A Serious Man is a witty, well-made and wonderfully acted little movie. Compared with the rest of 2009, it ranks as one of the best, but within the context of a career, it stands out as a serious disappointment.

Director: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed,
Running Time: 105 minutes
Certificate: 15
Release Date: 20th November 2009

Matthew Kleebauer


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