The Coen Brothers have always been great at creating dimwitted characters that everyone loves. Well, everyone loves them except the Coen Brothers ...
I want you to keep one thing in mind before we dive into this review of A Serious Man, the newest Coen Bros. piece: The words I write will be shorn completely of any decorative hyperbolic statement. You may disbelieve the veracity of that statement, especially considering its location on a site that houses lists like "The 6 Most Recently Quoted Bullshit Animal Facts," but I assure you, everything that follows is written as plain-faced and hyperbole-free as possible.
A Serious Man might be one of the bleakest things I've experienced since Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
Before stepping into Burn After Reading, I was curious as to whether the Coens could get more misanthropic than their Oscar-winning adaptation of McCarthy's No Country for Old Men; co-starring Tommy Lee Pockmarks, the dumb bartender from Cheers, and the 15 year-old-chick from Trainspotting who hid Renton's meatwhistle in her ham wallet. For the record, that was the last thing McGregor fucked onscreen that wasn't Batman, fanboy expectations or Tilda Whateverthefuckthatis. Burn dripped comedic condescension, like Ian Malcolm demonstrating Chaos Theory, liquid contempt rolling off the "Brad Pitt is funny!" side of the hand instead of the "Fuck Josh Brolin" side. But it was just as potent and just as mean as its predecessor.
"Man, Dana Delaney went south like a motherfucker after China Beach, huh."
See, outside of Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski and maybe O Brother, the Coens don't like people, and enjoy ruining them thoroughly. Usually, they give an out, like Fargo, where the audience is invited to openly mock doofy Midwestern accents and blank, uncomprehending yokels, and feel comfortable in knowing that the Coens are sharing their intellectual superiority, that the idiots they're skewering are safely beneath you and there's nothing more satisfying and karmically hilarious than ignorant hayseeds sowing the seeds of duh.
A Serious Man shivs everyone, though. Imagine if you were in prison with Danny Trejo, and some bitch in a half-shirt and a do-rag told him you had three packs of smokes in your asshole. You'd be standing there, looking goofy and out of place like Andy Dufresne, and Machete would be like "hey ese." And you'd go "whuh?" And he'd shiv the fuck out of your liver until you farted Lucky Strikes. A Serious Man is like Danny Trejo's knife. It is quick, it is merciless, it shines brightly and it wants to perforate soft parts of your body.
Sure, there's more to the film than just relentless discomfort: It's beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, evocatively scored by Carter Burwell and hilariously underplayed by Michael Stuhlbarg as our protagonist Larry Gopnik. This is technically a black comedy, but not one as relatively easy to digest as "I've watched The Office. The British one, the one where the fat limey with Patricia Arquette's teeth sweats a lot. I know about black comedy. I know about awkward ha-has."
They even headfake at it being a goofy, whimsical Coen Bros. kind of comedy, starting the film with a non-sequitur of a prologue where someone shoves something sharp into Fyvush Finkel, something that's been a long time coming ever since Picket Fences was unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
"Seriously. Eat a sack of dicks."
But damned if I can tell you everything the movie is trying to get at after one viewing. I'd watch it three or four times before writing this thing if I could, but I can't. It's not like that'd matter, though, because even if I nailed every possible interpretation correctly and you took the Cliffs Notes in with you, the film works in efficiently uncomfortable ways that defy simple explanation. It's really fucking unnerving, even as it's shocking disbelieving chuckles out of the audience.
Gopnik is suffering through a tense time at work, between vying for tenure at his school and enduring blackmail schemes from a shit student. He's in the midst of a money crisis, living with a cold fish of a wife who is openly dating someone sort of like Francis Ford Coppola on Quaaludes (played brilliantly by Fred Melamed). His kids are selfish and vapid wastes of skin. His older brother (Richard Kind) keeps him up all hours of the night by vacuum pumping a cyst on the back of his neck. His faith in Judaism is about as rewarding as sleeping with Courtney Love. Situations stack on his sad shoulders like soul-rending Lego blocks made of barbed wire and brambles. And what he clings to--almost mantra-like, as the Coens throw crisis after crisis into the back of his head like a snowballs made of razorblades--is the statement: "I didn't do anything."
It's that ineffectual shlumpiness that dooms him. The movie screams at Gopnik to sack the fuck up and do something, anything, to help himself out of the situation, but he quietly suffers, developing fissures in his sanity, fissures that leak increasingly sour dreams into his subconscious. But a sentiment that simple--"You have to look to yourself to improve your life. Passivity is a prison and you already know what Danny Trejo will do to you there,"--seems too easy for what's bubbling under the surface. I'm sure there's more to it, though, and I'll be seeing it about two more times to find out just how wrong I am.
The Coens are deceptive fuckers. Deconstructing their films is often like counting rings on a redwood. Sometimes it's even like said counting rings until the Lorax himself pops up and says, "You're still not smart enough to get this. Start over and try again." But maybe A Serious Man is a cautionary tale, and the Coens are simply ("simply." Right, sure) saying, "If you're willing to let the world run you over like that, you deserve every shitty thing a couple of sadistic jackasses like us can bounce off your throat."
But that could simply be me trying to make sense of what really unnerved me about the film: More than any movie in recent memory, this one makes the case that sometimes bad things happen to decent people, and there's no reason for it, and there's nothing that can be done about it, and it'll never get better, and you'll never stop sinking no matter what invisible person in the sky you ask to save you.
Basically, what if Woody Allen wrote Requiem for a Dream, and two of Hollywood's best dreamed it? You'd wake up and bolt upright in your cot, exhausted and sweating, like Larry Gopnik does almost every night.