The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man (2009)

Notable Festivals: Toronto, London
Independent Spirit Awards: Robert Altman Award

In the late 2000’s, Joel and Ethan Coen were experiencing a career resurgence in the wake of their Best Director win at the 2008 Academy Awards.  After shooting BURN AFTER READING (2008), a comedic palette-cleanser of sorts, the Coens again defied expectation by tackling subject matter they held very close.  Their fourteenth feature film, 2009’s A SERIOUS MAN, is arguably the Coens’ most personal and autobiographical film to date, by virtue of its dealings with Judaism and midcentury suburban Americana.  

A SERIOUS MAN is a film about a man’s struggles with faith, a topic that most everyone can relate to.   Coming from a pair of filmmakers who are infamously guarded about their private lives and influences, it’s a curious inclusion in the Coens’ canon.  For instance, not a single well-known actor appears in the film (let alone any of the Coens’ regular repertoire of performers).  By taking our attention away from who is in the film, we are able to more clearly focus on what the film is trying to say.  But, what is it trying to say, exactly?  In a good way, the film itself doesn’t seem to know.  What is there to say when confronted with the unknowable force of a higher power?

Reading like a modern-day retelling of the Biblical story of Job, A SERIOUS MAN is about Larry Gopnik, an ordinary man whose faith in God is put to the test on an almost daily basis.  Throughout his ordeals, he tries to a good and righteous Jew, but he finds it increasingly hard to be a good role model in an old-fashioned community, especially when the world around them is modernizing at a rapid pace.  While the story is based on the Coens’ own experiences and notions about their Jewish heritage, people of any belief (even atheists) can sympathize with the hard questions that the film asks.  But make no mistake, A SERIOUS MAN is a deeply personal film for the Coens, made even more so by the 1967-era Midwestern suburban setting that they themselves are a product of.

The cast, while comprised mostly of unknowns, thankfully doesn’t fail to deliver the Coens’ unique brand of quirk and characterization.  Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a mild-mannered physics professor who is growing frustrated with his increasing ineffectiveness.  He haggles with his students over grades, he can’t control his kids, and trying to salvage his marriage to his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is a lost cause.   Stuhlbarg’s non-celebrity is a blank slate, giving him an everyman quality onto which the audience can project their own existential crises.  Lennick runs the risk of being the “evil, cheating wife”, but her own convictions and sincere charms work well in her favor.  As Judith’s new beau, Sy Ableman, actor Fred Melamed steals the show.  He’s an overbearing presence with no conception of personal space. His cool, calm demeanor makes his invasion into Gopnik’s family all the more evil.  Character actor Richard Kind  also appears as Uncle Arthur, Larry’s idiot savant brother who is continually laid low by the cyst growing on the back of his neck.  The remainder of the cast all perform admirably, but it’s upon these four principals that the weight of the story really rests.

Roger Deakins returns as Director of Photography, adopting an earth-toned color palette that fleshes out the late 60’s setting that has been meticulously recreated by returning Production Designer Jess Gonchor.  Highlights within the 1.85:1 frame often take on a greenish-blue tinge while primary colors are desaturated and dull.  On paper, it sounds visually dull, but Deakins’ expertise makes for a rather handsome 35mm film image.  The Coens’ use of classical camera movements like dollies continues, and is supplemented with punches of handheld camerawork and canted angles that serve to illustrate Gopnik’s increasing disorientation.

Carter Burwell again composes the score, using a lilting harp to add an air of mystery to the proceedings.  It also recalls the ancient heritage that serves as the film’s focus, alluding to Old World sensibilities while retaining a traditionally cinematic sound.  Such sensibilities are also illustrated through the use of various opera cues.  Additionally, the Coens use period-appropriate psychedelic rock throughout, most notably the recurring musical motif of Jefferson Airplane’s “Want Somebody To Love”.  Other bands like The Velvet Underground and Jimi Hendrix serve as encroaching voices of modernity that threaten to penetrate this ancient culture from the outside.  This is illustrated in the scenes where Larry’s son, Danny, listens discretely to rock music on a walkman during his Hebrew classes.

The opening of A SERIOUS MAN is worth mentioning, notable by sheer virtue of its inclusion.  Presented in an old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, the prologue depicts a (probably made-up) piece of Jewish folklore concerning a man who has invited an old family friend into his humble home for soup and shelter from a cold winter’s night.  The man’s wife is shocked to learn the identity of the old friend, who she is convinced died of disease three years earlier.  When the old man enters their home, the wife tries to prove that he is a dybbuk, or the malevolent, spiritual manifestation of a dead person.  She even goes as far as stabbing the man, who laughs off the wound as he bleeds to death.  He wanders back out into the night, while the married couple ruminates on the spell of bad luck that surely awaits them.  While some take this sequence as a prologue showing the genesis of the Gopnik family’s bad fortune, the Coens publicly insist that it has no bearing on the overall plot.  Instead, it is meant as a callback to an older time when short films played before features.  This short introductory sequence (spoken entirely in Yiddish with subtitles) sets the mood for the ensuing story, while also introducing the audience to some of the more arcane, superstitious tenets of Judaism.

It stands to reason that the Coens’ most personal film will have the most distinct bearings of their directorial aesthetic.  This is more or less the case.  The Coens’ distinct sense of character quirks seems to manifest itself from the deeply-rooted idiosyncrasies of their cultural upbringing.  By this, I mean that the characters in A SERIOUS MAN are purer, more-distilled versions of classic Coen character archetypes.  A fundamentally Jewish sensibility courses underneath each of the Coens’ character creations and plots, an observation that seems obvious now upon reflection, but didn’t really make itself known to me until A SERIOUS MAN.   Other elements of the Coens’ aesthetic– period settings, sudden/brutal violence and the withholding of onscreen deaths for prominent characters– are all present and accounted for.  There’s even the occasional in-joke acknowledging a self-contained universe across the Coens’ body of work (for instance, a callback to Tukman/Marsh, the fictional law firm mentioned in BURN AFTER READING).

The Coens don’t strike me as particularly religious, but Judaism– arguably more so than any other major religion– is as much a cultural and ethnic heritage as it is a belief system.  Even if they’re not ardent observers of their own faith, their upbringing in that particular culture informs their filmmaking style and view of the world.  By tackling their religion head-on, the Coens are sharing more of their intimate selves than they ever have before.  But don’t try to look for these insights too hard– even their most nakedly personal moments ultimately reveal themselves as red herrings under intense scrutiny.  The film was released to middling box office success, but met with strong critical acclaim.  It went on to be nominated for Best Picture at the 2010 Academy Awards, and has ever since enjoyed a comfortable standing among the Coens’ best films.

A SERIOUS MAN asks hard questions, and provides little in the way of answers.  And rightfully so, for a film that concerns itself with vague concepts of God, fate, and destiny.  Everything about the film, including its knockout ending, defies easy explanation.  So it is with such an unknowable, ultimately un-proveable thing as a religious belief.  In the end, all you have to go on is faith, and only when it is is tested will your strength of character make itself known.

A SERIOUS MAN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Universal.