[1996] Fargo

Fargo, North Dakota, the place, sits on a crossroads betwixt Interstates 29 and 94, whose interchange will direct travelers from Billings, Montana to Kansas City, Missouri (or Kansas, pick ’em). The clover design is meant to deliver ease to drivers, eliminating the need for other traffic control measures, like stoplights, and to allow drivers to continue their blissful 17 hour drive across the barren nothingness. There’s a faster way, of course, that takes our drivers through Sioux Falls, SD, eliminating the need to travel through North Dakota at all. But that’s not why our family is on this road trip; it’s to see America, as the framers of the state lines intended.

Across Montana, through Dakota (N), then south through Dakota (S), our family will miss Nebraska totally, through a planning decision that routed I-29 along Iowa’s western edge, instead of Nebraska’s eastern boarder. It’s the same reason this sedan will miss Kansas, until this car makes it to dual thread Kansas City. It’s been a pleasant drive thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars Americans paid to pave its lands so that it’s easy enough to drive hundreds of miles for pleasure. Interchanges abound.

Fargo, the movie, happened somewhere on these interchanges, or maybe even further east, in Minnesota, where Jerry Lundegaard (brilliantly oafed by William H. Macy) started his slow tumble into madness. This character is a naïve klutz; a harebrain among pinheads, all of them. Every part of Lundegaard is a cruel gag. It’s where the Coens’ now thrive, casting characterization itself as a character, but were using their early work as a playground. Audiences hear “The Dude” and conjure exactly the effusive image of Jeff Bridges in his robe, sipping unpaid-for milk. Audiences also hear Jerry Lundegaard and think “oh yea, you betcha,” in that Minne-sowta drawl; they think of “Farego” and the woodchipper. It’s a triumph. (This is auteur theory).

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[2009] A Serious Man

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 MenTrue 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 FargoA 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 FargoA 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. Continue reading