We’re Very Serious Men
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