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The Coen Brothers have a history of creating enigmatic films. Their first, “Blood Simple”, and later the more illustrative, “Barton Fink”, were odd and beautiful films. The Coen brothers didn’t feel the need to spoon feed plot to viewers. The audience had to pay attention. Without the director and writers spelling out background information or telegraphing the “twist” at the end, these mysterious films were both funny and infuriating. (They also rewarded repeated viewings on VHS and DVD).
“A Serious Man” fits well within this oeuvre. So here is my warning, presented without judgment: there is a thin line between engagingly mysterious and obnoxiously obtuse; there is a thin line between respect for an audience’s intelligence and arrogant disregard for an audience’s need of context.
For now, I am willing to disregard that “A Serious Man” is random and seemingly ends before it really…ends. Sure, I’ll embrace the mystery. The acting is great. The writing is superb. And, above all, it’s a Coen brother’s film, and even a Coen brother misfire (and I’m not saying this film is) is still better than 99% of the movies released today. They are masters of the craft.
In addition to being bizarre, other elements of the film are classic Coen brothers. The film is a Coen brothers comedy, meaning there will be lots of drama. (As opposed to their dramas, which can be pretty darn funny). Also revisited is their habit to follow an everyman who faces increasingly absurd and often dangerous situations. Think William H. Macy’s Jerome Lundegaard in Fargo.
In “A Serious Man” the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a man navigating the disintegration of his familial, professional, and marital life within the Jewish faith and the confines of late 1960s Midwestern suburbia.
Technically the film is interesting and an inside joke. A washed out, purposefully low budget feel metaphorically and literally hangs over the movie. They even purposefully screw up their shots in a specific way. By doing this, the Coen brothers pull you completely into a different time and place as if you were watching a movie made in that time. And they fooled me. Since I was once a projectionist I dismissively "tsked" the projectionist’s performance and actually complained. I was told by the projectionist the “problem” (in quotes) I was complaining about was on purpose. It then dawned on me: you got me Coen brothers, you got me. How infuriating. How funny.
“A Serious Man” plays this weekend at our beloved Gold Town Nickeldeon – the place to go see a mysterious film like this. This is Clint Farr, once again, Alone at the Movies.