To my mind, the first really successful Coen Brothers film was Barton Fink (1991), the duo’s Palme d’Or-winning take on the psychodrama. In the years since that milestone in their oeuvre, the Coens have had many creative ups and downs while working in a variety of genres, often following up strong works such as No Country for Old Men (2007) with fairly mediocre misfires like Burn After Reading (2008). While the brothers have a roughly equal hit and miss ratio with comedies, noirs, and action movies, they have had consistent success with the psychodrama (a genre they returned to winningly for 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There). The psychodrama plays to the Coens’ strengths (mood building, flashy stylistic touches, quirky dialogue, mannered performances) while allowing them to sidestep their weaknesses (lack of narrative momentum, sitcomish social messages, unconvincing depictions of eras past, a condescending attitude toward their characters). A Serious Man (2009) is the Coens’ best application of the psychodrama, and their best film to date, because it manages to actually overcome many of their persistent flaws rather than merely covering them up. The film shows the brothers actually growing in artistic maturity rather than simply tightening up their always solid craftsmanship.
Psychodramas don’t really require a believable or “realistic” depiction of their setting, since these films are usually told almost entirely from the highly subjective perspective of their main characters. This is ideal for the Coens, whose recreations of past eras have often been marred by glaring anachronisms and by the general feeling that the brothers’ knowledge of (and interest in) their settings doesn’t extend beyond the way that they’ve been depicted by popular culture. This persistent failure is more of a liability in movies like Miller’s Crossing (1990) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) than it is in psychodramas like Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There, since, again, the latter two are basically set in their main characters’ heads. Still, while it doesn’t really matter that Barton Fink isn’t convincingly set in the ‘40s and The Man Who Wasn’t There doesn’t really have anything to say about the ‘50s, the feeling of pastiche does hurt the viewer’s immersion into those films’ worlds. Barton often feels like a mashup of Lynch and Polanski, while The Man seems to be set in a James M. Cain novel rather than Billy Bob Thornton’s head.
There are no such obvious precedents for the style or setting of A Serious Man, whose tragicomic world feels like a logical and organic extension of the anxieties of Michael Stuhlbarg’s uptight mathematics professor, who tries to maintain his sanity as every aspect of his quiet suburban life seems to unravel at once. Stuhlbarg’s wife (Sari Lennick) announces that she’s leaving him for ultra-smug community pillar Fred Melamed, while his kids (Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus) steal money from him and complain about the TV reception, and his intellectually brilliant yet socially retarded brother (Richard Kind) lays on the couch and complains for hours on end about his hardships. The professor tries to deal with these problems through his faith, and the film is structured around his visits to three rabbis, each of whom is less helpful than the last.
The Coens do, unsurprisingly, make a lot of jokes at the expense of the Jewish religion specifically, and at the search for a “meaning” in the universe in general. At the same time, and uncharacteristically, they show a genuine sympathy and understanding for those who do seek meaning. Perhaps the Coens don’t reduce the world of A Serious Man to shallow, cynical mockery because they know its world so well. Amongst other things, the film is about the awkwardness of being Jewish in the American Midwest, something that they experienced firsthand growing up in Minnesota. Stuhlbarg’s character is reportedly based partially on the Coens’ father (who also worked in education), and it’s easy to imagine that many of the other characters are based on people that they remember from their childhood (and the perpetually stoned Wolff might be a stand-in for the filmmakers themselves). It certainly helps that Stuhlbarg gives such a rich, nuanced performance, bringing real pathos to his character’s quest for meaning while still getting a lot of laughs out of his ever-mounting frustration. The supporting cast is very strong as well, with the velvet-voiced Melamed in particular providing some hilariously deadpan line readings. Aside from a brief misstep involving Stuhlbarg’s fantasy (?) about an intimidating neighborhood shiksa (Amy Landecker), there are no moments where the Coens seem to be looking down on their characters with contempt.
A Serious Man is not just a triumph for its cast, but for its writer-producer-directors as well. The hyper-specificity of the Coens’ dialogue receives its fullest expression to date, the esoteric Jewish terminology playing out both more musically and more plausibly than the Midwestern hick speak in Fargo (1996). While the film doesn’t have as much conventional “action” as most of the Coens’ other films, the hilarious visits to the rabbis more than fill the “outrageous setpiece” void. The use of music is typically strong. Though Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” is a far more obvious music cue for this film’s late ‘60s setting than “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In” or “A Man of Constant Sorrow” were for The Big Lebowski (1998) or O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), it is played at such a volume and used in such constrained contexts that it feels as liberating (and scary) as it presumably did in 1967. The setting is heightened enough to be funny and slightly surreal, but for the first time in their careers, the Coens have made something that seems fully grounded in the real world, something relevant to the shifting social codes of the era that it’s set in, and something that speaks honestly to the human condition.
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