Monday, May 3, 2010
The pleasures of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen remain constant: tightly controlled style in the form of production design, camera movement and precision of language. Roughly half of their movies about smart people and half about stupid people, but none of the people, smart or stupid are smart enough to take the correct action to resolve their problems. What's hard to figure is how the Coens themselves feel about their blinded, paralyzed characters; and in turn, how they feel about their audience. Not a few of their films, such as The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading are just a shaggy dog story. A Serious Man (2009) falls in that category as well.
It posits an American middle class Job who looks for the answers, and instead of a story about faith and endurance, the answer is that there is no answer. Voltaire's Candide did something like this 250 years ago, but at least at there is a conclusion: "Work is the only thing that makes life supportable." In other words, keep your head down, keep busy and stop worrying about whether you're happy.
A Serious Man offers no conclusion and no peace for its protagonist. Just calamity and more calamity, which suggests not only contempt for the characters--a dangerous tendency for an artist, but contempt for the audience--a fatal one. (The mockery of rabbis and of religious Judaism seems particularly adolescent, hence the title of this post.)
Two more incidental remarks. The much-discussed Jewishness of the film seems to me, a gentile living in a very Jewish town, to be utterly inauthentic and completely irrelevant to the story. The characters could have been Norwegians, and the story would not have been much different. Second, it is to be hoped that the film will spark a renaissance of interest in the immortal TV series F Troop, in which the Borscht Belt-style Hekawi Indians acted more like real Jews than the people in this fake movie.