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The standard line on A Serious Man, and I see no reason to deviate from it, is that this is the Coen brothers’ most “personal” work to date. To be sure, the brothers have never been reduced to hired hands. They’ve always had the good fortune to be able to make the films they wanted to make, films that reflected their personal tastes and personal attitudes and personal interests and personal viewpoints. Still, in the strict autobiographical sense, their new film must be acknowledged as extra personal, set as it is in the Minneapolis suburb of their adolescence (Jefferson Airplane on the soundtrack to fix the date, “Somebody to Love,” 1967), in a Jewish household headed by a university professor with a son on the brink of his bar mitzvah.

I have insufficient biographical information to go much further than that, but it’s enough. Fargo, its title notwithstanding, was similarly set in Minnesota, albeit present-day. (Though the brothers here have wisely played down the regional accent they so mirthfully played up there. Been there, done that.) And the titular figure of Barton Fink was also explicitly Jewish, if only in heritage rather than in practice, and cut off from his roots. A Serious Man, however, trades the oblique approach for the direct pipeline, the exact place and the exact time and the exact “tribe.”

Part of the Coens’ good fortune, needless to say, has been their Oscars for No Country for Old Men (perhaps, as their first literary adaptation, their least personal work), sufficient Hollywood capital to enable them now to make what might appear, from a certain standpoint, to be a commercial throwaway, a commercial throat-cut, with no familiar names in the cast (Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Fred Melamed, et al.), and only a couple of familiar faces (Richard Kind, Adam Arkin, and I believe, although I couldn’t be sure, Michael Lerner, the studio head from Barton Fink, as a senior law partner who in long shot pitches over dead before he can utter a syllable), no concessions whatsoever to the marketplace, no distractions from or dilutions of the Coens’ vision. Purely personal. And inasmuch as the Coens are the undisputed stars of the show, the highest praise to be given the cast is that they one and all are at home in the brothers’ universe, fit into it comfortably, keep up the masquerade.

As one who grew up in an adjacent Minneapolis suburb with a few years’ head start, I can attest to the film’s value as an historical document, attest in particular to the plaid shirts and ankle-length pants, to the haircuts and glasses frames, to the lawns and houses, to the deer-hunting gentile neighbor, to the Coens’ eye and ear for local enterprises, the Red Owl supermarket, the Embers family restaurant, the Jolly Roger motel, the Log Cabin coffee shop, the Oak Knoll country club (my elementary school was in point of fact Oak Knoll). As one raised a Lutheran, leniently “confirmed” without completing my catechism, I must yield to the brothers’ view of the Jewish community.

I suspect that many Jews, grinning and bearing it, will have to do likewise, given the audacious depths of self-loathing on display. Some of them, I suspect further, might have a hard time doing so, and will not be mollified by the disclaimer at the end of the closing credits, “No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.” (I find it telling that Landmark Theatres chose to open the film exclusively at the Hillcrest instead of their customary Jewish venue — Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, etc. — the La Jolla Village.) The filmmakers bring to the subject the unkind eye of the caricaturist. They demonstrate an acute and excruciating body awareness, the girth, the ear hair, the sebaceous cyst on the neck, the protagonist’s half squat at the classroom blackboard, his outthrust butt, his pant cuffs riding up to his calves. And their subtly bulging face shots and torso shots, fronted and centered, approach the freak-show aura of the photographs of Diane Arbus. The parade of surnames has a Dickensian grotesquerie all its own: Gopnik, Finkle, Marshak, Nachtner, Ableman, Schlutz, seldom a simple Shapiro. And the three rabbis of three different generations are hilariously ineffectual in three different ways. But to complain that the character portraits are not rounded, are slanted, would be to complain that a caricaturist is not a classicist, that Daumier is not Ingres. An artist has to be free to loathe. This is, it bears stressing at this point, a personal film. It is a document, not a documentary.

It is also — unexpectedly enough, as unexpected as the superstitious Old Country folk tale of the prologue and its old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio — a religious film, a film concerned not just with the specific religion of Judaism and its whole exotic lexicon, but with much broader religious questions, universal inquiries into life’s mysteries: what have I done to deserve this? what have I done with my life? what ought I to do? what am I here for? The 20th-century Job at the center of the film has his unfair share of afflictions: an unloving wife who demands a divorce, a mellow-toned peacemaking home wrecker (“No one is playing the blame game, Larry”), a freeloading brother with a gambling problem, a daughter who wants only to wash her hair and go out, a son whose sole use for his father is to fix the aerial so he can watch F Troop (the ration of four-letter words in the script is pretty much the exclusive property of wing-spreading adolescents), a grammatically enigmatic Korean student intent on buying an “A,” a tenure committee in receipt of defamatory reports on the teacher, a bill collector from a record club he had never joined, and more. Why? Why him? “I am not an evil man,” he objects. “I went to the Aster Art once. I saw Swedish Reverie.” (I went to the Aster many times. I saw Bergman’s Monika, Antonioni’s La Notte, Vadim’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or more to the point, Harriet Andersson skinny-dipping, Jeanne Moreau’s nipple, and Annette Stroyberg barely covered up on a couch, respectively.) It’s true that when he’s on the roof fixing the aerial he can’t resist shifting his position to see over the fence of his nude sunbathing neighbor. And it’s true as well that he on one occasion is emboldened to ring her doorbell. But he has done nothing!

Doing nothing, or not doing anything, becomes a resounding refrain in the film. The straying wife and her bloated new soul mate claim to have actually done nothing (“This is not about whoopsy-doopsy”). The arrested brother declares that he too has done nothing. But doing nothing can have more than one meaning, “committing no transgression” but also “attaining no goal,” a defense on the one hand and a recrimination on the other. “Doing nothing,” the head of the Physics Department counsels the protagonist, “is not bad.” Yet doing nothing isn’t doing good, either. Wouldn’t doing good be better? Shouldn’t we be doing something? Such questions are not just to be taken away from the film but taken back into it for a second viewing. Keep an ear cocked.

Joel and Ethan Coen have long and lately devoted themselves to the vast panoply of human stupidity. Stretching out now, stretching back to Barton Fink, they have chosen to reassure us, although “reassure” doesn’t sound quite right, that an intelligent, educated, well-meaning, and would-be serious man, a man so earnest as to strain his voice continually at the upper reaches of its range, is no less at a loss. The Coens are often taken by their detractors to be nothing more than cold-hearted wisenheimers, and in fairness they often content themselves to pretend to be cold-hearted wisenheimers. But the pretense looks to me to be a form of modesty. Let the film speak for itself, and believe the pretense at your poverty. These are serious men.

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Alias_Jabez_Goethe Oct. 14, 2009 @ 5:48 p.m.

And indeed, most moviegoers have an impoverished view of what they pay 8 or 10 dollars for in the theaters, let alone video. On opening weekend (which netted them a not-so-funny $251 Thousand dollars), I suffered through three meatheads with cell phones going off, in addition to Living Room Style sqaucking throughout. Most offensive were three teen guys ("Religion is really f--ked" one loudly proclaimed during the Goy's Teeth sequence). As for this being a vital religious movie (in contrast to a mere Religion Movie: The Nativity Story, Passion of Mad Mel, so forth), I couldn't agree more. How does it compare for Duncan Shepherd, I wonder, from recent non-comedies like Cold Heaven, Under the Sun of Satan, Resurrection..? The comedy (or violence) didn't hurt the deep feeling and respect for life contained in Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother... -but will that not automatically disqualify it from much consideration? I notice there isn't much respect for this movie so far. More misunderstandings per a review than I've ever read for a Coen movie.


Alias_Jabez_Goethe Oct. 14, 2009 @ 5:48 p.m.

Part II... And for it being " a commercial throwaway, a commercial throat-cut" (Note: it's up to $923 Thousand total US gross so far, as of yesterday!; Historical note: The Hudsucker Proxy only ever made 2.8 Million in theaters, where as Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink made a shade over 11 Million combined!), that's something of an overstatement. Even if it is, they more than earned it with the (suprisingly) big success of their last one.

I was reading Mr. Shepherd's first (March 7, 1996) review of Fargo again, and right off the bat he breaths relief that The Boys scaled back production (Fargo was a return to a more simple, fluid approach to filmmaking, like their first few). Already he was worring about them becoming too much a burden on the Hollywood financiers! I can't help but be a little disappointed Mr. Shepherd doesn't do a little overview of the Coen's career this past decade, and how A Serious Man. Still, I have the tradional Re-Review (and maybe, since he likes this as much as their 90's work - a Third Review?) to hope for. I usually got more from the second reviews he did for the likes of Barton Fink, Fargo, et alia. The more Mr. Shepherd likes a Coen brothers' movie, the more conservative his first review tends to be. That's especially true of the Fargo review. I love the fact he has the personal connection to Minneapolis, and varifying the Coen's are being true to their memories growing up their, at roughly the same time as Shepherd. This enriches his reviews of their more "personal" movies. Here's an idea: would it be something Duncan Shepherd would be interested in, to Re-review A Serious Man, comparing it to their Gates of Eden stories rather than just their past movies. I see more of a connection to the "autobiographical" stories in that collection than to anything else they've done. And I don't mean just the part about how the sister spent most of her time washing her hair. Maybe some day they can make a short film based directly on 'The Boys'. They already touched on that in the diner scene in Intolerable Cruelty. It would be great to see it with two young kids and a father and waitress, instead of Clooney, Adelstein, and (I forgot the name of the waitress in that underappreciated, "unoriginal" Coen movie)....


Alias_Jabez_Goethe Oct. 14, 2009 @ 6:17 p.m.

I was reading another old review of Shepherd's :Mafioso (the SD Reader should make these older full column reviews available by online archive, such as the Chicago Reader does with their reviewers of lessor import), where there's a big -and hugely enjoyable- preamble talking about his history with the director's films, and the star's (Norma Bengell's) work, and his infatuation with her in the 60's-70's. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHCbEI... Here's a Youtube clip of Noite Vazia (with Bengell, Odete Lara), that rare Cinema Novo classic by Walter Hugo Khouri, for those curious. I can't find it's availability listed anywhere, but I sense there must be a Portuguese-only DVD available, somewhere (given par of it's on Youtube!). I'll keeping looking for this erotic Antonioni-esque favorite of Shepherd's and Robbe-Grillet's.


Josh Board Oct. 16, 2009 @ 12:45 a.m.

Mafioso was an interesting film.

A Serious Man has it's moments. The characters are interesting. But it was very disappointing.

It was better than the horrible Coen Bro films The Man Who Wasn't There or Intolerable Cruelty. A comedy that wasn't funny, just silly.

Duncan is correct, the 3 different rabbis, none of which help him with their 3 different stories...great fun (and yeah, that was Michael Lerner, at least according to the person with me). It was great seeing Richard Kind and Adam Arkin.

The opening was perhaps the worst opening in a movie I've seen in probably a decade.

And by the end of the picture, I just wondered why this wasn't the classic film it really could've been.


joeb Nov. 18, 2009 @ 11:13 a.m.

This one put me in mind of P.T. Anderson -- whatever happened to him? -- specifically his "Magnolia."

As in "A Serious Man," the P.T.A. film begins with a story, a fable almost, which informs what is to come. Further similarities -- the biblical references, both from the same book of the Bible -- Exodus. In "Magnolia," the reference is to Exodus 8:2, the Plague of Frogs, whereas in "A Serious Man," the Exodus reference comes at the very end.

The final shot of "A Serious Man" is the approaching tornado, which may be understood as the vengeful God coming to exact his penalty for Gopnik's moral lapse (and his son's blasphemy of his Bar Mitzvah). The tornado is a dark, twisting column of smoke. In Exodus, God guides the Israelites to the promised land by manifesting as a pillar of smoke in the day (and a pillar of fire at night).


Josh Board Nov. 18, 2009 @ 3:30 p.m.

You ask what happened to PT Anderson. Well, he got some Oscar nominations a few years back for THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

joeb...those all add interesting points to the film, for sure. But just as O Brother mirrored another story (Homer) and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (bible), at the end of the day, that stuff doesn't matter to me. What matters is if it was a good film WITHOUT the viewer knowing those things.

Someone could tell me that a horrible Adam Sandler movie (by the way, what did you think of him in the PT Anderson film Punch Drunk Love?)...anyway, a Sandler comedy that doesn't work, could be War and Peace done as a comedy, for the big screen. Who cares? Give us a good movie.

(On a side note, does anyone else get annoyed by "book snobs" that always want to tell you "the book was better"?)


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