I don’t know how to review A Serious Man without sounding like a complete arse bag (probably) so I’m just going to sink my teeth in and assume that if you are reading this then you listen to the show, know what I usually sound like, and that I’m less an arse-bag and more an arse-hole; I think there is a difference.
Also, I think I am addicted to using brackets so what follows is a concerted effort to reduce the usage of my favouritest form of punctuation.
3 things off the bat:
- As far as I am aware A Serious Man is one of the most positively reviewed films of the year. All the journals, magazines, videos and newspapers I have read have given the film many compliments and praised it as another Coen classic.
- Most ‘Joe-Public’ (affectionate term) people I have spoken to about this film have not enjoyed it, OR have thought it was ok, but not great.
- This second point does not surprise me and whilst I can appreciate why JP may have reservations about the quality of A Serious Man, I am afraid they are completely wrong.
Let me be clear. I loved this film. LO-VE-D. If you allow it to be, A Serious Man is one of the funniest, exciting and inventive films of the year. It is fantastic from “parable-Beginning” to “beginning-of-the-End”. The mostly unknown cast are pitch perfect. The cinematography is flawless. 60’s suburbia has never looked so full of life.
At just under 2 hours long the film flies by as Larry Gopnik (Michal Stuhlbarg) struggles to make sense of all the ills facing him at home and at work. He seeks counsel from a series of Rabbi on why God is doing this to him, but is unable to decipher their tenuous metaphors and anecdotes into meaningful religious sermon. Life carries on apace for Larry, and as things go from bad to badder he realises that maybe there is no divine plan, until a final scene revelation makes clear to all that just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse…
On the face of it the Coen Brother’s film is nothing more than a collection of trivial instances revolving around one man that seeks to remind us how little control we actually have in this world. Viewers may pass such events off as trivial and ordinary. Indeed, sections of A Serious Man might fit nicely into a melodrama like Revolutionary Road. But this is not melodrama. The film is shot and scored as if it were a high-concept thriller or even action movie. Scenes cut suddenly to black as they end; booming crescendos introduce us to each new section of the film; dream sequences are unveiled through emphatic high-concept twists; two characters meet separate automobile related fates at the same time in a scene constructed not unlike those at the end of a Saw movie (although obviously to a far higher quality of direction and editing).
A Serious Man is shot like one of those serious films in which the protagonist wears a stern face for the entire time, because the world is coming to an end or there is a bad guy that needs thwarting or organisation that needs brining down. The comedy comes from using this style of film making for a story in which the protagonist hasn’t quite figured out who the bad guy is yet, or even if there is a bad guy, and so experiences each new event with a lost ‘why me’ expression on his face.
Larry is surrounded by a community of characters that come with little or no substance. They are caricatures; the disgruntled wife; the carefree hippie type; the troubled teen; the naive Rabbi in training; the foreign exchange student; the intense neighbour. But to criticise A Serious Man for having stereotypical supporting characters is to criticise every film that Joel and Ethan Coen have ever made. Burn After Reading, their most financially successful output for years, was little more than an ensemble of one-dimensional kooks, and yet received no major criticism from audiences because those characters were played by Hollywood’s highest-paid-handsomes! In creating a world full to bursting with various clones of other Jewish or Suburban films, the Coens are able to drop a more realistically nuanced creation such as Larry into the mix and subvert our expectations on what it is to live a normal life.
The Coens themselves have admitted to the hours of entertainment they found in making Larry’s life as miserable as possible. The success of this film comes down to its creator’s warped sense of humour. For this is a Coen film for Coen fans. Fans that know this creative duo do not make movies for anyone but themselves; for they are their own worst critics. It is a joy to see the product of a partnership at the top of their game. If they were ever to adapt the dictionary I have no doubt that they would find a way to make it funny, engrossing and truly unique.
My esteemed colleague Chris often remarks that a film is only as good as what is up on screen, and that it fails if one has to justify its greatness based on other elements, elements not available to every reader. This is partly true, and A Serious Man succeeds in this matter because it is genuinely encapsulating and entertaining. But what elevates it to ‘Film of Year’ status is recognising that you are in the presence of two masters of their trade, and that if you ‘get them’ and trust them, they will blow your mind with a simple tale of one man realising how futile it is trying to come to terms with it all. And maybe that’s the point.
The Coen Brothers know the answer; Life is life. Stop worrying about defining it and just have fun. Stop taking things so seriously. You’ll live longer.