Ten Words or Less Review: Coens have new set of clothes, same ugly personality.
I’m convinced more than ever that “No Country for Old Men” was a fluke. A marriage of literary material and artisticly lost filmmakers that worked out well for all parties involved. Left to their own devices the Coens continue to revel in easy cynicism aimed at targets of their own creation that deserve little more than the scorn and misfortune they receive. Many have stated that “A Serious Man” is a more mature film for the Coens. That it’s a more deeply felt thing for them personally as they’re tapping their own childhood for a setting and their Jewish faith for inspiration. I feel this assessment is crap. I see a film that expresses the same type of loathing and cynicism of people that their worst work can lapse into. It’s become a tell tale sign of the laziness which continues to mare their films.
“A Serious Man” is about the neebish but decent Lawrence , dutifully portrayed by newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg, his unlikable wife, his unlikable children and all the horrible things that happen to him for reasons he can’t fathom. Professional uncertainty begins to linger, his wife declares her intention to leave him for another man, his children ignore him at all turns, an employee of the Columbia House Record Club hounds him for enrollment payment he has no knowledge of. It is the story of Job set in the late 1960’s around an unnamed Minnesota suburb. It could be compelling and it could be touching, even devastating, but never for a minute do I think creators Joel and Ethan Coen feel Lawrence doesn’t deserves this fate.
Lawrence is “Fargo’s” Jerry Lundergard reincarnated as a less devious soul. When his life unravels, becoming a field crowded with landmines, his reaction is always one of befuddlement and stupefaction as they explode one by one. He’s always looking to others for answers. His inability to act is his sin. Also, there’s nothing to like or take note of about Lawrence, so feeling sympathy for his plight fails. He’s a character made contemptible through blindness. The fact that he’s so oblivious to his family’s rottenness says something about him. Were he a poor man surrounded by decent people this type of scenario could have worked, but “A Serious Man” populates itself with one awful soul after another. In what has become a staple of the Coens work, “No Country” excluded, most of the characters wandering through this tale are petty things worthy of scorn and rebuke. Everyone is self-serving and annoying to various degrees. How can the story about the taking away of everything a man has work when everything he has is lousy?
While divorced from moments of higher lunacy which typify many of their films, “A Serious Man” still retains abundant traces of the Coens various trademarks. The inhabitants of this picture exist in that skewered place where surrealism hides in plain sight. Everyone lives a life of unsettling peculiarity which is at constant odds with the timid nature of Lawrence, always keeping him on edge. Someone at some point is going to die quickly and unpleasantly. What the film is hoping to accomplish as an overtly religious parable is anyone’s guess. As the whole thing feels like a cynical put on, taking anything it says seriously feels like folly. The Coens simply reinterpret the story of Job as an exercise in sadomasochism. They’ve also once again cut their own story off at the knees. While it’s clear what destiny has bestowed upon poor Lawrence and his family, the film refuses to linger. The Coens shut off the projector and walk away, not wanting to endure any kind of finale hardships. These curt endings to their films are beginning to play like cruel gimmicks. As if showing contempt for the characters in the film weren’t enough, they have to take one last jab at the audience. Denying us a real resolution as a final ‘screw you’ has become their version of “The End.”
The Coens have grown to loathe the world and everyone in it and their movies do little anymore but express this loathing. “A Serious Man” is just one more expression of their uselessly malcontent point of view. After “No Country” I had hoped that the Coens would find a new place to go, but the only place they’ve gone to is one of internal selfishness. For all that’s been said about it, “A Serious Man” is no more than one more ironic farce that they’re pulling on the audience. Instead of applying their increasingly bleak craft on a more routine genre, they’ve turned their eye on the religious parable. And though the setting may be personal for them, the story is just one more way for them to express how much they detest people. In this case they literally are casting themselves as an Old Testament God. They create a religious story populated with people they feel no sympathy for, and then set about destroying their creations with glee.