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"A Serious Man directed/written by the Cohen Brothers" - no really a review

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I finally watched the Coen Brothers film A Serious Man - last year's Oscar nominee. After I watched, I wandered over to read this review by Liel Leibovitz and then via a commentator on that review - headed over to The New Yorker's review by film critic David Denby (who by the way hates most films - he's as bad as Pauline Kaul used to be). Needless to say, the two reviews are the exact opposite of each other, and the first one references the second thusly:

If drama, as Alfred Hitchcock neatly put it, is life with the dull bits left out, metaphysical musings—the kind involving God, the universe, and our reasons for being—can too often seem like the dull bits with the rest of life left out. What unfurls on the screen lacks a particularly defined plot, any semblance of character development, or any of the other tropes that constitute cinema as we know it. Which, of course, has sent some critics reeling: the film, they argued, was too bleak, the protagonists too stereotypical, the narrative too lackluster. A viewer about to see A Serious Man would do well to ignore these voices and, like Gopnik, get ready for some serious grappling.

And this is what the New Yorker states:

The Coen brothers in their black, bleak, belittling mode, and, except for a few moments, it’s hell to sit through.


Shot with mainly local actors in a super-hard-focus style by Roger Deakins. As a work of film craftsmanship, the movie is fascinating; in every other way, it’s insufferable.

Read more [ It may have been taken down now - this review was written a few years ago.]

Where do I fall? Somewhere in the middle. I was admittedly bored in places, but the filmmaking is intricate and near perfection, as are the performances and the writing. This film is a bit more like reading Proust or Sartre than say reading Raymond Chandler or Cormac McCarthy for that matter. It is a predominately "male" film through a predominately "male" gaze as nearly all the Coen Brothers films with a few exceptions -the exceptions being True Grit, Raising Arizona, and Fargo (which may explain why they are amongst my favorites). Although I do think No Country For Old Men, a predominately male picture, may well be my favorite as well as their best picture to date. But I've admittedly not seen The Big Lebowski and saw Blood Simple and Fargo quite some time ago.

But... here's the thing - A Serious Man much like Proust was not meant to be a rousing piece of entertainment. It was meant to be an existentialist musing on the meaning of life and Judaism, with comedic overtones. It's an intimately personal tale - that the filmmakers made for themselves. They had something to say, to wonder, to question. I'm not sure they cared about what we thought or didn't. This is not like True Grit - which is clearly made for an audience, to "entertain". This film was made to well ponder.

And there are images that stick with you afterwards - as in all the Coen Brothers films. The Talmud reviewer who is Jewish (not sure what Denby is) - states that two metaphors stand out - the coming storm or tornado, and the Schrodinger's cat puzzle. And yes, they do, you see in your mind, embedded there the tornado flowing across the flat plains...of a Surburban city of ranch style homes that all look to be carbon copies of each other. Coming in a swirling pattern towards the school. The movie ends and opens with the boy and the father paralleled - the boy with the earbud in his ear listening to 1960s rock and roll, while his father has a doctor shining a light in his ear. The boy running from the bully wanting to collect money from him, while the father feels overwhelmed by debt. The father asking advice of numerous rabbi's - constantly wanting to know the answer to the age-old question "why me" - his problems boringly mundane and hardly the stuff of drama, yet if we're honest the ones, we the audience, tend to tackle in some shape or form most of our lives. And the final sequence - the father staring at a bill for 3,000, finally changing the grade of a kid in his class who offered him a bribe in that amount from an F to a C , and talking on the phone to a doctor with ominous news about x-rays (which he'd gotten in the beginning sequence) while his son gets his radio back (which had been taken in the beginning) and is about to tell the bully that he has the money to pay off his debt - while staring at the on-coming aforementioned tornado - head on, as his father sits with his back to it, either oblivious or unable to face it. Modernism and Post-Modernist theory collide.

A serious man - is hyper-realism. As opposed to the surrealism we see in Oh Brother Where Are Thou or even Raising Arizona. There is no discernible plot outside of well the ebb and flow of a middle-class man's ordinary life. He gets up. He works. He has problems with bills. His kids drive him nuts. He seeks comfort from numerous avenues. Looks for answers. Gets none.

This film reminds me of other films that fall into this category - Sirk's "Far From Heaven" - which was remade a few years back, Ang Lee's disturbing and unforgettable masterpiece The Ice Storm (where actually quite a bit happens, but it has the same bleak and black comedic mood), and of course the films of the 1970s - Five Easy Pieces with Nicholson. Films about the existentialist angst of well a life without drama or high-points - just mundane dilemma.

I think Denby's review fails in that Denby went with whether or not he personally enjoyed it, as opposed to whether the film succeeded in its aim or did what the filmmakers wanted it to do. That's the problem with criticism - we reviewers tend to critique based on our own personal enjoyment of a particular piece as opposed to whether the piece succeeded in its aim. If for example you happen to hate violent films, particularly ones based on comic books - going to A Dark Knight and writing a scathing review of it - only tells me what I already know - you hate violent films based on comic books. Which hello, the film happens to be, you knew that going in to it as did I. With the Coen's it is admittedly difficult to know what you are going to get since they like to jump about in different genres. Someone going to see A Serious Man - could well expect another Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona or No Country for Old Men. But, I think you can review it in a way that states it managed its aim while admitting it is not your cup of tea and why that is. The film isn't insufferable or bad, it achieves its aim which is to depict a middle-aged Jewish man's existentialist dilemma in the 1960s and the more universal theme - which resonated with me at least, of why bother? If life is so boring, why do we keep going? Because we do. And because it isn't always. And joy can be found in the oddest and smallest things - like a ham-radio blaring the Jefferson Airplane's - "I Want Somebody to Love" while a Tornado winds towards you.

At the end of it, I thought, okay that was boring in places and not that funny - yet, oddly reassuring and comforting - like getting a nice hug or pat on the back, see? You aren't alone.
Which in some respects is more gratifying than mindless entertainment.

So, would you like A Serious Man? Well, it depends on your mood, I suppose. And whether you like meandering plotless stories that are more slices of life than something with a clear beginning, middle, end. Also, if you like films that feel like philosophical meanderings. Is it good? Oh yes. Very very good, actually. Not a film that one forgets immediately. Sort of like Citizen Kane.