The Coens follow up their grim oscar-winner with the star-studded, absurd and murderous Burn After Reading and then a star-less (recognized one guy from Spin City) return to excellence. Like Miller’s Crossing, it’s a series of perfect scenes, building and building, and leading to… ambiguity. Would need to watch a few more times to work out the film’s philosophy. Part of the problem is all the biblical references (IMDB trivia: “His son Danny’s looking at the oncoming tornado recalls God speaking to Job from out of the whirlwind, saying He will not explain why these bad things have happened to him.”) and I’ve only skimmed Revelations looking for the parts about the seas running red with blood (I think that’s actually in the Necronomicon), so I miss certain allusions.
Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry leads a pitch-perfect cast (relative unknowns or not, the actors must be the best ensemble of the year, Inglorious Basterds their only rival). His wife is leaving him for a smarmy neighbor just as he’s up for tenure, a student is threatening/bribing him, his kids are pains in the ass, his brother is a closeted, medically-impaired couch physicist, and the rabbis offer no help at all. The story builds to a final tragedy (presumably bad news from the doctor, which we never hear, directly after Larry caves on the bribery issue) and a final mystery (a tornado outside the son’s school) but shortly before the denouement comes the son’s quiet, nervous post-bar-mitzvah visit with the elder rabbi which just explodes the movie’s long-held tension when the old man’s handed-down wisdom consists of quoted Jefferson Airplane lyrics.
G. Kenny calls it “something new in the Coen oeuvre: A completely seamless hybrid of their putatively mature mode with their outrageous cartoonish one.”
To watch A Serious Man – their most morally sophisticated work – is to feel what it’s like to be Joel or Ethan Coen, to see the world as a pointless series of endless sufferings and inconveniences, surrounded by insufferable buffoons and irrational cretins. This is not a world of their making. This is the world they live in.
You could know the Kabbalah inside out and still struggle with these mysteries every bit as fruitlessly as Larry does. And that’s just how his creators want it. Though the movie concerns a specifically Jewish crisis of faith (and paints a satiric but lovingly precise portrait of Jewish-American culture), A Serious Man unfolds in a moral universe that’s recognizable from earlier Coen films. It’s a cruel and ultimately inexplicable place. What Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem’s pitiless mass murderer, was to No Country for Old Men, the Hebrew God is to this movie.
I should also mention that this movie had one of the best trailers of the year, a montage of annoying sound effects and cries for help set to the rhythm of Larry’s head being banged into a chalkboard. If not for that propulsive Arcade Fire song on Where The Wild Things Are, I’d have to give it top honors.