Let me commit a bit of cinematic blasphemy by saying that the Coen Brothers might be the most wildly overrated filmmakers in recent history. It’s not like their entire catalog is awful. Miller’s Crossing, for example, is quite good. The bulk of their work is almost comically bad. When I watch a Coen Brothers movie, and then listen to the inundation of critical praise, I’m always reminded of why professional film critics can’t be trusted to see that the Emperor has no clothes. Still, I consistently get pulled in to watch their movies because they usually look like intriguing concepts.
My latest effort to understand the Coen Phenomenon was A Serious Man. This movie was pitched out as a modern re-telling of the Book of Job (perhaps trying to follow up on the success of O Brother Where Art Thou as a retelling of the Odyssey?), though it appears the Coens have insisted that any connection is only on the surface. I find that hard to believe. The story follows a late 1960s Jewish physics professor named Larry Gropnik, who is introduced to us describing the paradox of Schrodinger’s cat and unknowability. Larry seems happy until he gets home and discovers that his wife wants a divorce. This touches off a series of events ranging from annoying to terrible, all of which are directed at increasing Larry’s misery. Whether it’s his son’s nagging about watching F-Troop, the situation with his wife, the nausea-inducing attempts at empathy from her new beau, or problems at work, everything in the universe seems to turn against Larry all at once. He looks to understand why all this is happening by consulting three rabbis, who deal with him in various ways, none of which can be called positive.
This is the kind of cinema that would make a great study in a film class. It has the standard disorienting angles and perspectives that you expect from Joel/Ethan work. There is loads of subtext that makes you want to rewind and check out certain scenes again to make sure you got all of what was going on. There’s also the Coen standard of lots of dead air and people staring at each other, but that seemed to be somewhat toned down from their other efforts. The real issue is that everything gets repetitive after a while. There are only so many bad things that can happen. By the end, the filmmakers look like they’ve run out of tragedies, so they just insert a bunch of dream sequences to try and make a two hour run time (which they still didn’t make). Unlike other Coen movies, the score played a big role in this for me. It wasn’t all that sophisticated, but it was a major factor in setting and keeping the tone.
The acting load is borne entirely by Mark Stuhlbarg who was terrific as the perpetually frustrated and overwhelmed Larry. The rest of the cast was pretty forgettable, but most didn’t have an opportunity to make much of an impression, good or bad. The exception is Fred Melamed, who was hilarious as the guy stealing Larry’s wife. A movie just about people encountering Melamed’s character would have been great.
I’m kind of cutting things short in other areas to focus on why this could be construed an an anti-Semitic movie. Yes, the Coens are Jewish. That’s why this movie is so weird. Let’s look past the fact that a whole bunch of these characters seem to fall into bad Jew stereotypes. Just sticking to the religious element of the film, the Coens seem to be condemning the whole religion. Larry ultimately has no hope. This is confirmed by his visits with the rabbis, who offer him nothing. As the moments of despair continue to pile on, he has nothing but to accept what is happening, despite the fact that he has done nothing wrong. This is all very Job-ish, except that instead of God showing up to proclaim his sovereignty, we get a physics lesson on how we can never know anything. To constantly keep injecting religion into a movie, with the religious interactions ranging from mindless to apathetic, I’m not sure there’s any other way to interpret the message here. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m betting this is why the movie didn’t get the fanfare of your average Coen production. It’s an interesting intersection of values. Nihilism plays a big role in a lot of Joel/Ethan movies. The fact that it seems specifically targeted at Judaism this time is incredibly striking given their own roots.
The morally offensive stuff isn’t that bad, considering it’s the Coens. The language is non-blasphemous, but there are an abundance of f-bombs, mostly uttered by one character whose total screen time is less than 5 minutes. A woman is sunbathing naked. There’s a sex scene, but no nudity is shown. Violence is minimal.
This is a good example of a movie that’s made well enough, but you’ll never want to see it again. I think it would be worthwhile to show it to Catholics to try and explore why the Catholic answers to questions like Larry’s are so different, with the main distinctions revolving around that notion of a God who would become flesh and dwell among us. This is where the real show is, even if it’s not what the makers were aiming for. For the casual watcher, it’s probably not worth the time. There’s just not enough story to make the kind of movie that was desired here.
On a side note, if you ever catch it on television or something, just watch the first ten minutes. It’s a great little ghost tale that doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the rest of the movie. It is definitely worth your time.
One point five tiaras.