Can the Coens be serious?

Of course they can! In fact many of their films are comic with a dark side. This is particularly so of the first film of theirs that I saw, Fargo. It is one of those films you don’t forget. I don’t blog about all the films I see, and when I do blog about them, it’s usually an Australian film. Our industry is so overlooked – in Australia, let alone the world arena – that I like to do my bit. But, it is hard to resist commenting on a Coen Brothers film – and so I’m not going to (resist that is!). The film I’m talking about is their latest, A Serious Man.

A Serious Man chronicles a couple of weeks in the life of physics professor Larry Gopnik at the point that everything starts to unravel for him. It all starts (ostensibly) when a failing Korean student attempts to bribe him and his wife asks for a divorce. It’s all downhill from there as the hapless Larry’s fortitude and attempts to be a good and “serious man” are tested again and again. If you have a biblical background you will see parallels here with the story of Job. As for me, I reckon there’s a bit of the Everyman in him. Before his story starts, however, there is a funny little sepia-tone prologue set in a Polish shetl in which a man invites home another man who had helped him on the road, except that the wife believes that the man had died years ago and that her husband had introduced a dybbuk (evil spirit) into the house. These characters are never referred to again but they set the tone, introducing the idea of bad things happening – and of those things perhaps having some supernatural origin.

Like all Coen Brothers films, this is a stylish movie – it has that sort of heightened naturalism (or is it realism!) that I tend to love (like you also find in Mad Men). The details of its midwestern 1960s setting are beautifully rendered, the characters are both larger and smaller than life (if you know what I mean), the music is apt as ever, and it mocks and it mocks and it mocks our failings as human beings. Interestingly, it does not use a named cast as many of the Coens’ recent movies have. It’s also very Jewish. It’s imbued with that Jewish sense of fatalism (“why is God doing this to us?”) and is presented with typically Jewish self-deprecating humour. Some criticise it for being stereotypical – and it is. But that’s part of its humour. If you don’t get that sort of humour – if you don’t see the humanity behind it – you won’t like the movie.

When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies… (Rabbi Marshak)

We can’t ever really know what’s going on. (Larry)

Now, I have to warn you that my son, a very keen Coen fan, did NOT like this movie. Well-made he said, and he giggled a bit he said, but he found it mean-spirited and oppressive. He’s not the only one. It seems that this movie is splitting critics. Our very own Margaret and David are split: Margaret gave it 2 stars out of 5, while David gave it 4. Margaret, like my son, felt it was mean and unlikeable, whereas David, like me, found it funny with its own sense of warmth. How can the same film have two such opposing points of view? So, if you haven’t seen it, don’t take my word for it – you know what to do!

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