If it's crap ... We'll tell you
The Coen Bros.’ considerable fanbase shares a lot in common with that of The Grateful Dead. Dead Heads don’t simply enjoy the band’s music on some superficial level; it’s practically a religion to them. In their minds, few bands (if any) could ever hold a candle to the group. And if you aren’t a fan, odds are you’re going to have to deal with some serious lecturing from said followers concerning the enormity and unfathomable talent of The Grateful Dead.
And so it is with Coen Bros. fans-- and the directors have quite a few of them, and for good reason. Joel and Ethan Coen comprise the finest filmmaking duo Hollywood’s given us to date, and these guys rarely turn out poor material. Time after time they’ve churned out one brilliant offbeat film after another, often surprising audiences with increasingly inventive material every time. Obscure themes and an air of quirkiness are guaranteed when you see the Coen’s names pop up in the credits. To regress for a moment to the fanboy issue, I’ve got to mention that I’m a devout Coen follower if ever there was one. Sure, I don’t only watch their films... but they’re one of my favorite directorial teams of all time. I’ve liked (or loved, in many cases) just about every film of theirs, excluding The Ladykillers (never got around to it.) And yes, I dug No Country For Old Men’s ending... but that’s neither here nor there. The Coen bros. have returned with this new film, and it’s just as strong a film as you’ve come to expect from them.
A Serious Man is a 2009 black comedy film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It’s a modenized (1960’s) re-telling of the book of Job that centers on an unfortunate man named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg.) He’s a devout Jew, and a good man (or so he believes.) But his life is beginning to unravel as things go horribly wrong in every aspect of his life. His wife is in the process of leaving him. He’s getting into car wrecks. His children barely acknowledge that he exists. He’s in danger of losing his tenure at work. Larry is becoming increasingly worried and hopeless, and numerous visits to the town rabbis aren’t helping. Why are these things happening to Larry? Is he being punished for something? Will he ever get any redemption for all his suffering? These are the kinds of questions/themes that A Serious Man raises and explores.
To get straight to it, I loved just about every aspect of this movie. Let’s start with the cinematography-- it’s flat-out gorgeous. Films that take place in the ‘60’s are always a joy to watch, and this film is beautifully shot and elegantly done. The direction, to be expected, is fantastic. These boys know what they’re doing, and they can make any story interesting. Some have criticized the film’s ending, with many complaints reminiscent of the No Country for Old Men backlash. Neither film really provides us with clear closure for its characters, but settles instead for an abrupt (yet symbolic) conclusion. I applaud the directors for having the guts to end their stories in such an unconventional manner, even if that style doesn’t work for everybody. What really shines about this film, though, is its quirky and memorable characters. Stuhlbarg in particular is very talented and enticing to watch. Every character is well-defined and entertaining in their own way. This is an extremely well-built piece of filmmaking. It’s very dramatic and even psuedo-depressing at times, yet there are moments of (albeit very dark) humor scattered throughout that punctuate the drama. Simply put, it’s a joy to watch. It may not be the Coens’ best film, but it’s a great one nonetheless. I did find the ending a bit sudden, yet totally appropriate in terms of where the story was headed. This is the kind of bleak story where little victories count for a whole lot; they give our suffering protagonists something to take solace in, no matter how small or brief they may be. So while Larry’s story is one that makes for a pessimistic and potentially frustrating movie, it’s definitely one that pulls you in and mesmerizes you. It’s stuffed to the brim with that well-known Coen sentiment, for better or for worse. This is a wonderfully engrossing film, and one that deserves to be seen. Joel and Ethan have yet to disappoint me, and A Serious Man is nothing less than confirmation that these gentlemen are supremely talented and are as great storytellers as they have always been. The story’s interesting, every character is quirky and well-developed, and the cinematography and acting are just as impressive.
A Serious Man encompasses all that I dig about the Coens. It’s a great little offbeat film that can be enjoyed as a captivating piece of cinematic fiction as well as appreciated as a stroke of genius in terms of direction and workmanship. I’m thrilled that my favorite directorial duo has outdone themselves yet again.