The Coen Brothers have carved themselves a particular pastiche – most notably through the hyper-specifc self-reference and high-flying humor that’s usually black, or dark, and wrapped-up in some macabre topic. The brothers, Joel and Ethan, have been increasingly efficient Hollywood mainstays since their debut, Blood Simple, premiered in 1984. Through two intense periods of classic releases, the Coen Brothers have only created for themselves a wider range within which to work. Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, even over a 20 year hallmark, have all defined the Coens as Oscar-worthy writer/directors and opened doors to funding an star power in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country For Old Men, True Grit and Burn After Reading. Their collective status have also granted them access to higher budgets and wider audiences all of whom can find something to which to relate. The Coen Brothers have carved themselves out an eponym and the command of Hollywood’s collective attention the way Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorcese do.
So what the hell is A Serious Man?
Their 2009 Jewish Fargo, A Serious Man plays from the left-field in the Coens’ roster – even for the men who once crafted an entire movie around Jeff Bridges’ ability to smoke marijuana and drink Kahlua all day. In short: A Serious Man is the nebbish version of The Big Lebowski if The Big Lebowski took place in an innocuous neighborhood close to Fargo. A Serious Man plays off almost every single Jewish stereotype, but for film’s sake each one is laughably overexposed. First, there’s the family: Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) a helpless family man, stuck in an unloving marriage to his wife and to his job, who experiences every possible failure all the time. For such an unstable person, he’s remarkable consistent and serves as a foil to A Serious Man‘s undulating cast of misfits. In minor roles, his family and his colleagues – and to a lesser extent his rabbis an lawyers – help to exacerbate his stereotypically Jewish neuroses: most spectacularly his utterly failed attempts to be a mensch. But it’s not for want of trying – the man Larry Gopnik is instantly likable and the Coens do a mystical job of keeping him sympathetic for the whole of A Serious Man even through his trials of not being able to do anything with gumption and panache. The methodology in A Serious Man recalls the Coen Brothers’ long résumé but something about the subject matter is simultaneously foreign and strikingly inherent to the Brothers’ upbringing and ascent to the top of Hollywood’s elite.
Here’s what I mean: A Serious Man is so blatantly Jewish that it’s a wonder that the Coen Brothers hadn’t made this film until 25 years into their career. Joel and Ethan are Jews, were raised Jewish, may or may not practice Judaism with any sort of sincerity, but are certainly instantly recognizable as Jews. Within the confines of Los Angeles and the film industry, they’re not platooned per se, but dispersed to the rest of world, whose Jewish population hovers under 1%, the brothers must have waited until they established themselves as ‘serious’ filmmakers to delve into the inherently funny world of Jewish self-hate. They waited not to be pigeonholed as “the Jewish filmmakers,” even though the outcome of A Serious Man shows that, with the right subject matter, they can hit a nerve with their inborn audience. I’ll even make the argument that, even with The Coen Brothers’ obvious Jewishness, they couldn’t have made A Serious Man without first making Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and Fargo, from which A Serious Man steals its attitude.
Outside the Jewish elephant-in-the-room, A Serious Man is a dark comedy first; the singed edges of sadness are secondary to both the film and to the Jewish life. Even the viewer is not familiar with stereotypical Jewishness, the Coen Brothers aimed high with their everyday-life motifs: unhappy wife, kid lost in his own puberty, other kid lost in self-loathing and vanity, impotent brother and non-committal colleagues and religious figureheads. Some combination of all of these characters ripe for comedy rub some of their Jewishness off on the viewer – making the Coen brothers successful at not only creating characters who survive on pot and booze, but also successful at creating characters whose addictions are more rooted in legacy, history and culture.
Again if we’re going to talk about 2009 as a great year for movies, we can probably narrow the list down from 10 to 5 and my list probably hasn’t changed:
- The Hurt Locker (winner)
- District 9
- Inglourious Basterds
It is important to note that I did like A Serious Man, but not as much as I like the Coens’ other work and not as much as the above films. Expanding the short-list into a long-short-list has had a compound effect on the Academy’s process, but I’d argue that it’s had an overall positive effect: exposing the intended audience to underrepresented films is more important in the long run than is prestige for garnering a nomination. The effect is twofold, too: if your film can win a pool of 10 nominees, it surely is a “better” film than one that only had to beat 5. The results aren’t, of course, normalized per year, but if we stick with the theme that the winner represent the year’s zeitgeist, 2009 was The Hurt Locker‘s.