The Coen Brothers Didn’t Do Anything

They had made it quite clear, hadn’t they, these Coen Brothers, that they didn’t much care about their audience’s expectations.  Hell, spare for Marge Gunderson in Fargo, they had never much cared for their characters either.  While they looked down on their subjects, they often looked right through those who watched…those faithful who tolerated the abominations that were Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers only left to be confounded by the philosophical nonsense wrapped in the ultra-slick throwback genre packaging of No Country for Old Men.  Sure, we laughed at the hatchet job that was their star-studded Burn After Reading…but where had that magic gone?  Where were those brothers who had brought us Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink and Fargo?  Had they really sold themselves out to those who had embraced The Big Lebowski as their magnum opus?  Oh, why had you forsaken us, Coen Brothers?  Where had you gone?  What did we do to deserve this?  We didn’t do anything!

Where were the Coen Brothers?

In 1960’s Minnesota.  Their boyhood home.  Where it all began.

Stripped down to the bare bones, A Serious Man is a very serious apology…or is it an explanation…or is it a parable…or is it none and all of those things?

Mild-mannered physics professor Larry Gopnik (a shockingly sympathetic Michael Stuhlbarg) can’t seem to catch a break.  His wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for the all too calm and sooth-talking Sy Alberman (who played by Fred Melamed ranks as a Coen Brothers’ character for the ages).  His daughter (Jessica McManus) cares only about her hair and her friends.  His son (Aaron Wolff) is too busy smoking pot and listening to Jefferson Airplane to care much about his upcoming bar mitzvah.  His brother (Richard Kind) suffers from all sorts of physical and psychological ailments and can’t seem to get off Larry’s couch except to commit crimes against morality.  And these are just his family problems.  Poor Larry can’t even get an appointment with the senior rabbi to discuss his ever-expanding crisis situation.  While seeking advice from those unfit to give it, Larry adopts as his mantra, “But I didn’t do anything.”

Peppered with their usual black humor and a very stinging jab at their Jewish roots, the Coen Brothers paint a vision of human misery that transcends the typical Hollywood view of suburban dystopia.  The film opens with a bizarre “old wives’ tale” about a woman who mistakes a man for an evil ghost.  Through the rest of the film other “parables” are weaved in and out the narrative to shine light on Larry’s existential quagmire suffocated by a very real-life shit-storm.  The film, fittingly and organically (unlike the contrived closing scene of No Country for Old Men) ends abruptly in media res with a closing shot that sums up the Coen Brothers’ view of life.  It really sticks in your throat.

Why do these bad things keep happening to Larry?  Why does anything happen to anybody?  What is the meaning of all this?  Why have the Coen Brothers made so many bad films over the years?  Do they hate us?

No, you see, they don’t.  If they did, if they didn’t care, they wouldn’t share this very special film with us.  With A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers seem to be confessing to their faithful.  “This is who we are.  This is where we came from.  Is it any wonder why we are the way we are?  This is why we make movies like we do.  This is why we treat you like this.  We can’t help it.  We didn’t do anything.  And if by some small miracle you see something profound in the nothingness…”

I imagine A Serious Man could be for Jews what last winter’s Doubt was for Catholics.  It’s a test of our faith…our faith in movies.  Just as Quentin Tarantino reclaimed his position as our cinematic dictator earlier this year with Inglourious Basterds, the Coen Brothers have now reasserted themselves into our collective psyche as our cinematic rabbis with A Serious Man.  They’ve always been here making movies for the faifhtful and the faithless, and what you take from each of their films depends on your perspective.  Their movies are what you make of them.

Eh, I guess they thought that they should tell us this, or maybe they shouldn’t have.  Was it really important?

Wasn’t it Marge Gunderson who taught us there are more important things in life………than all of this?

Whatever this is.

Written by David H. Schleicher


  1. I did this last year as well, but it bears repeating (and some re-examination) and I welcome those to submit their own rankings of the Coen Brothers’ films:

    I’ll kick start the discussion with my own:

    1. Fargo 10/10
    2. Blood Simple 10/10
    3. A Serious Man 10/10
    4. Miller’s Crossing 9/10
    5. Barton Fink 9/10
    6. Raising Arizona 9/10
    7. O’ Brother Where Art Thou? 9/10
    8. The Man Who Wasn’t There 7/10
    9. The Big Lebowski 7/10 (down from last year’s 8/10)
    10. Burn After Reading 7/10
    11. No Country for Old Men 6/10
    12. The Hudsucker Proxy 5/10
    13. Intolerable Cruelty 5/10
    14. The Ladykillers 5/10

  2. A good review. I have to agree with your top two on the list. I might put “No Country for Old Men” a little higher, but not in the tip five. In any case, I love movies you can think about and talk about after. The Coen Brothers certainly let us do that.

    John, yeah, I think most people would rank No Country for Old Men higher than I would. –DHS

  3. Hi! David H.Schleicher,
    Here goes a really interesting interview with the actor Michael Stuhlbarg.(I really hate to admit this,but I’am so unfamiliar with actor Michael Stuhlbarg.)
    By the way,here goes my choices of Coen’s films after a little re-shuffling.
    DeeDee 😉
    1.Blood Simple 10/10
    2.Raising Arizona 10/10
    3.No Country for Old Men 10/10
    4.The Hudsucker Proxy 10/10
    5.Intolerable Cruelty 7/10
    6.Fargo 10/10
    7.O’ Brother Where Art Thou? 9/10
    8.Burn After Reading 7/10

    I have not watched the Coen’s A Serious Man yet,but this interview will probably convince me to watch the film…
    A Serious Man

    Cool clip, thanks DeeDee! –DHS

  4. Thanks for having “Miller’s Crossing” near the top. It’s beautifully put together and every idiosyncratic word and movement pushes the tale along. A great and under-appreciated film.

    Besides, where can you hear lines like, “Take your flunkie and dangle.” ?

    You are so right! Besides the stunning cinematography…the dialogue is full of great lines. My favorite is when after a big fight, Marcia Gay Harden says to Gabriel Byrne, “I bet you think you raised hell,” to which he replies, “Sister, when I raise hell you’ll know it.” –DHS

  5. David, I really can’t say how or why I missed this post, but my apologies. I may have been suffering with my kidney stone issues at that time, and my blogging lagged. Typically, another great post, and at this point I’d have to rank A SERIOUS MAN as one of the best films of 2009. I could never warm up to the stoical MILLER’S CROSSING, and BARTON FINK was another that lost momentum with me over time, but all the others on the list are well placed. Yes, I do like NO COUNTRY more, but again, no biggie–it’s taste in consideration of the impressive catalogue of these two auteurs.

    “I imagine A Serious Man could be for Jews what last winter’s Doubt was for Catholics. It’s a test of our faith…our faith in movies.”

    That’s a great point there David!

    BTW, FARGO is also my own favorite Coens film!

    Exceptional review on this essential film.

    Sam, I’m glad you recovered and were finally able to stop by on this one. As of right now…I think this may be my number one film of the year…but that could all change of course…a lot of heavy hitters always get stuffed into the last two months. –DHS

  6. I just watched this and in looking around on the blogosphere thus far, I’m feeling like I MUST have missed something, as this wasn’t the home run for me that it was for everyone else. And I love much of the Coen’s work, so I’m not yet clear on why this didn’t hit me like some of their other films have.

    Oh well, I’ll keep exploring others thoughts and see if it drums up any new feelings (along with watching this a second time).

    Troy, hmmm…maybe a re-watch is in store? I look forward to watching this again when it hits DVD. I thought it was a masterpiece. –DHS

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