A Serious Man

Poster
2009
Joel & Ethan Coen

5/10 (annoying and pointless)

Another overrated Coen Bros. film. Recently the Coens have provided me with the strange sensation that I’m going crazy, or inhabiting an alternate dimension, every time I see one of their films. Well, not actually during the film I guess, but rather afterward when I read about how good the films were, and I find out that seemingly everyone´s movie-going experience directly contradicted my own.

This is a strange place to find myself in, as I have been a huge Coen Bros. fan for many years. After their three most recent films, “No Country for Old Men,” “Burn After Reading,” and this one, I find myself heavily reconsidering this opinion. But for “O Brother Where Art Thou” (2000) and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001), the entire first decade of the millenium has been a misfire, and they haven’t come close to the level of quality that they consistently showed in the 90s (“The Big Lebowski” (1998), “Fargo” (1996), “Miller’s Crossing” (1990), and arguably “Barton Fink” (1991)). Their last masterpiece, “Lebowski,” came 12 years ago already.

This time they loosely interpret the story of Job, which had I known from the get-go might have marginally increased my enjoyment. It’s set in 1960s Minnesota with stage veteran (but relatively unknown) Michael Stuhlbarg playing Larry Gopnick, the Job figure, in a very impressive performance. (Stuhlbarg also bears an uncanny resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix, which was only distracting in the beginning.) The story goes that anything bad that you can think of happens to him, and he takes it like a true wimp. Toward the end some good things start to happen, but then a couple more really bad things, and then it ends. If you’re looking for excitement you won’t find it here.

My problem with the film is basically summed up by David Denby of The New Yorker who says, “As a piece of moviemaking craft, ‘A Serious Man’ is fascinating; in every other way, it’s intolerable.” The Coens bring their trademark attention to all things visual in order to create a thoroughly interesting feast for the eyes — they are painting with images. The photography is sharp and defined by strong colors and boxy architecture, and the costumes are impeccable.

The problem is with the story and the characters. The former quickly becomes tedious as we have to silently bear witness to absurd misfortune after absurd misfortune that befalls Larry while he meekly looks and sputters on. The problem of the characters, as with almost every single character that has ever appeared in a Coen film, is that they are mere caricatures. The result is that you become a hostage, not having anybody to care about in the entire film, yet continuing to watch while not really liking it. Larry, who you should be able to care about, is such a coward that he arouses more contempt than sympathy.

And for anyone who thinks I’m missing a deeper moral or mystical meaning to this film, I direct you to this quote, where Ethan Coen denies that their films have a unified meaning or purpose.

So what is going on with the people who really liked this film? I believe they are so taken with the stunning mundanity of the visuals and the quirkiness and pseudo-comedy of the caricatures characters that they overlook the lack of any emotional or psychological satisfaction whatsoever.

For me, the Coens are incomplete filmmakers. I consider them about 2/3 complete, but other people may argue with that figure, saying it’s closer to 1/2 or 3/4, or even 9/10. But it’s hard not to recognize that they’re incomplete, when they appear incapable of creating sympathetic characters, thus unable to inspire any sort of empathy or sympathy in the audience. They actually seem to be incapable of caring for their characters at all, instead coming off more as intrigued experimenters, curious to see what happens when they pull this leg off the fly, and then that one, and so on. They produce movies that are abundant in intellect but lack almost any emotional power.

It is strange, because the Coens are clearly talented men, and they have mastered many levels of cinema. They are experts on the physical (visual) level, the intellectual level, and even the metaphysical/theological level, as there is a pervasive religious/moral theme to their movies. But they completely bypass the emotional level in their works, either omitting it completely or dabbling only superficially. And the emotional aspect is a huge factor in film, such that any filmmakers that systematically neglect it will produce movies that are noticeably lacking.

This is something that has bothered me for awhile in Coen films. They’re engaging and interesting but rarely satisfying. They’re mere curiosities, with which you can pass the time without losing too much sleep over. That’s probably all the Coens want them to be, and they’re certainly welcome to that, but I think it’s a shame because there are so few complete filmmakers around, and they could be on that level if they chose. Until then, their films are just getting kind of tired.

There is a scene in the middle of “A Serious Man” in which Larry goes to visit his rabbi, and the rabbi tells him a story about a Jewish dentist who discovers that one of his non-Jewish patients has a mysterious engraving on the backs of his bottom teeth. The engravings say in Hebrew, “I am not a Jew. Help me! Save me!” The dentist agonizes over what to do, asking his rabbi and others for advice. He endures sleepless nights and can’t concentrate during the day. He doesn’t know if he should say something to his patient or not, or try to bring the “goy” to the synagogue. But nobody can tell him what to do, so after awhile he just does nothing and goes back to his life. Nothing ever comes of it.

Here the rabbi unceremoniously ends the anecdote and begins sipping his coffee, at which point Larry expresses disbelief that the story just ends like that, that there was no lesson or purpose whatsoever. The rabbi appears amused with Larry’s frustration, a “What do you expect?” attitude. He even makes Larry feel like an idiot for thinking the story should have meaning, even though everything about it — its context, its content, the reason for telling it in the first place — suggests quite reasonably that a meaning is in order.

Besides being probably the most amusing part of the entire movie, this scene is actually the key to comprehending the Coens’ movies. It is a microcosm of their entire repertoire. It’s a story that is eminently intriguing, strange and even hilarious. It appears loaded with all sorts of meaning and symbology, and it leaves the audience begging for an explanation of some sort. The story itself begs an explanation, and any reasonable person can see that. But when the audience justifiably requests its explanation, the storyteller looks at them like they’re nuts, tells them to relax already, and to forget the whole thing. He makes the listener feel like an idiot for thinking there should be an explanation. The storyteller pretends that it’s the most natural thing in the world to lead their audience on and then withhold the payoff. In other words, the whole thing’s a giant tease.

Thus, the main question relevant to this discussion is: Who typically comes out more entertained in this scenario, the audience or the storyteller?

21 March 2010

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