A Serious Man Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

[Focus Features; 2009]

If any one word has haunted the joint filmmaking career of Joel and Ethan Coen, it's "impersonal." Despite a stunningly accomplished resume that includes a handful of the finest films of the last couple decades, the lingering "stylish but cold" criticism has somehow never eluded them. Each film maintains a richly imagined façade steeped in cinematic and cultural pastiche, leaving some to wonder what's truly beneath the surface of their elaborately constructed, self-contained universes. The very nature of their career -- much like the individual films themselves -- remains something of a puzzle. Sure, they've won Oscars, earned a huge cult following, and created characters who will be forever enshrined in the American cultural lexicon. But who are these guys? And more importantly, what does it all mean?

A Serious Man is the Coens' attempt to tackle this question head on. While the brothers have frequently explored philosophical, spiritual, and existential quandaries, they've never done so as bluntly as in this newest, Jewest release. In prior works, the brothers would have created an intricate noir-based labyrinth for their protagonist to weave through in order to find salvation. However, in A Serious Man, which revolves around a protagonist trying to make sense of his middle-class existence following a particularly nasty streak of misfortune, our hero simply visits his local rabbis, and even openly quips -- "What did I do?"

Are the Coens just being more explicit or is A Serious Man genuinely personal? Looking at their typically hyper-stylized surface, one might point to the latter. Lavishly recreating the Midwestern Jewish suburbia of their late-60s youth, the Coens have managed to transform their own past into a milieu that's as weirdly specific and brazenly exotic as anything else they've created to date. This time around, they're not coppin' cues from Hitchcock and Kubrick, but rather their own childhood memories and recollections. The film's production is a beautifully conceptualized achievement in its own right; as always, they get all the details right, immersing us in a world that's simultaneously transporting and cozy.

Yet, somehow, the personal nature of A Serious Man's design makes it far less substantial than their first-rate work. Content to coast on nostalgia, misanthropy, and dated ethnic stereotypes, A Serious Man often feels lazy and unfocused, meandering around a series of one-note characters and situations until we've reached film's end and there's virtually nothing or no one to grasp onto. There's lots of wonderful stuff in the margins (the climactic Bar Mitzvah scene is the stuff of legend), but A Serious Man still feels like a misfire, in spite of, yes, being their most personal work to date.

So where does this leave us? Frankly, the Coens have no business attempting to outright tackle the Big Questions. Their films are fundamentally abstractions of the collective American consciousness, and what lies beneath the surreal, detached nature of their work is what makes the Coens' films so thoroughly magnetic. A Serious Man is an intriguing and perhaps important entry in their oeuvre, but also a disappointingly empty one.

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