A SERIOUS MAN (2009) 8/10


Are the Coen brothers serious men? Is A Serious Man a serious film?
The pair have officially co-directed and co-written four features thus far – the ones before 2004 were credited to Joel as director and Ethan as writer, and there was a noticeable slump from The Big Lebowski until they decided to formally “join forces” credits-wise.
   The Ladykillers (2004) was clearly intended to be funny, a romp, and it worked marvellously well on that level. If one wanted to probe deeper for themes, they were probably there, but to take the thing too seriously was surely a mistake and a waste of time.
Next up was No Country For Old Men (2007). Not entirely without humour, but, as befits a Cormac McCarthy adaptation, an unmistakably serious affair, concerned with profound issues. The Coens seemed somewhat uncomfortable with this direct, ostentatiously pessimistic material, this overt assertion of significance, and though they tried to subvert things here and there, the overall impact was garbled – a mismatch of temperaments and sensibilities.
(The fact that The Ladykillers stiffed at the box-office, won no prizes and was largely dismissed by critics, whereas No Country For Old Men was a box-office hit, won a stack of Oscars including Best Picture, and features in many critical best-of-the-decade lists, is neither here not there.)
Next up was Burn After Reading (2008). Primary intention: amuse the audience. A bit more substance here than The Ladykillers, of course, in that the idiotic characters were mostly figures of high importance in Washington DC. While flippant, Burn After Reading thus does have serious implications, but the incongruity between those implications and the glorious, self-mocking triviality of the plot merely adds to the fun. Did nicely enough at the box-office and with the critics, attracted some low-level awards buzz.
And now, A Serious Man – shot by the peerless Roger Deakins, edited by the Coens (under their usual nom-de-splice, Roderick Jaynes.) Again, the mode is comic. An original screenplay set in a Minneapolis suburb in 1967 (or is it 1970?), the picture charts a mid-life crisis endured by a neurotic Jewish physics professor (Michael Stulhbarg). Major problems at home and at work. Crisis of faith. Health worries. Wife is about to run off with another man (Fred Melamed’s Sy Ableman is a superb comic creation, flawlessly realised – he’s even great as a disembodied phone-voice.)
This time Coens seem to be aiming for a synthesis of their last two films. Like No Country, the script is explicit in its examination of serious, important, adult, mature subjects. It can be interpreted as a probing work of contemporary applied theology – metaphysics with a touch of plain old physics – a psychological exploration of what it meant to be Jewish in a largely Gentile corner of the United States at a particular moment in history (though light on period “markers” – there’s no mention of any real-life political figure or news event, but the picture is packed full of autobiographical detail.)
Many critics have pointed to the similarities with the Book of Job. However, even if one goes through the whole movie without once thinking of Job (as this critic did), it still works, rather beautifully, entirely on its own terms. Hilarious and nightmarish by turns, A Serious Man constantly catches us off-guard – from the self-contained prologue on (this is perhaps the first film ever where it’s actually an advantage to enter the cinema after the picture has started.) And whatever its demerits – there are, for example, perhaps two or three dream-sequences too many – it builds steadily and meticulously to what is surely one of the great final scenes in recent cinema.
The closing shot – the sound effects, the visuals, the placement of the characters, the fragmented dialogue, and the cut to black – is the best ending of a Coen brothers film since their very first, Blood Simple, and among recent cinema rivals United 93 for sheer, bravura, breathtaking chutzpah.

Neil Young
12th December 2009

USA 2009
directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
106m (BBFC)

seen at
The Tyneside Cinema
10th December 2009
paid  £6.00