A Serious Man
Coen Brothers Miss Rather than Hit
By Cole Smithey
Over their 25-year career as filmmakers the Coen Brothers have established a hit-or-miss pattern that allows audiences to practically guess the timing of their next flop. "A Serious Man" is the brothers' 13th film. It comes on the heels of two successful movies--"Burn After Reading" (2008) and "No Country for Old Men" (2007). Before that, the brothers slumped with a duo of lackluster efforts ("The Ladykillers" and "Intolerable Cruelty"), that had been preceded by the underrated "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001), and the hilarious music tour "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000). The pattern points out the brothers' proclivity for taking risks in pushing forward the style of dry dark comedy that they established well with "Raising Arizona" (1987). It's clear that the Coens are committed to reinvesting profits made on their successes to finance personal visions that would otherwise never see the light of day.
"A Serious Man" is not an awful movie, and it may well be a fantastic film for the audience that the Coens are speaking to. This is a film made to address, in coded terms, a very personal agenda of reflections and influences during a time in the '60s just before the period of Ang Lee's "Woodstock" which enabled a cross-cultural catharsis for many thousands of lost souls--or not. There exists a certain non-ironic unity between the two movies because they are both coming-of-age stories, albeit for different generations of Jewish males caught up is a similar American cultural zeitgeist.
It's not so much that "A Serious Man" isn't accessible--it is that. But the film never sets down parameters. There are guffaw-inducing bits of slapstick, but never any sense of which arcane aside or comic tone to believe. Larry's redneck Minnesota neighbor hates Larry from the well of his soul. He's a racist that Larry dreams of confronting but doesn't have the guts to carry out. The neighbor is a mute stereotype who never rises above anything more than a stereotype caricature. Larry's wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is a bad animal paled only by her truly mean-spirited suitor Sy Ableman. Larry is caught between seeking guidance from his religion, and breaking out of his timid mold to actually manage his life, but the filmmakers renege on choosing a bold decision for Larry to carry out. Instead, they substitute a tableau of natural disaster that could be read as an afterthought ending that was designed to mask the absence of the closure that the brothers had in mind but were too afraid to commit to film.
(Focus Features) Rated R. 104 mins. (C) (Two Stars)