A Serious Man
d. Joel & Ethan Coen / 2009 / USA / 106 min
Viewed at: Downstairs @ Prince Charles Cinema (London, UK)
At one point in the Coen Brothers’ deeply acute work of Judaic allegory, A Serious Man, our beleaguered physics professor Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) seeks the counsel of a wise old Rabbi. Instead, he gets the rather green Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg, aka The Big Bang Theory‘s Howard) who manages to sum up the whole film in one deceptively simple statement: ‘It really is all about perspective.’
Perception and neuroses, underscored by the tensions between pessimism and optimism, tradition and modernity, truth and immorality, are the chief concerns of this latest Coens effort, surely their most ‘intellectual’ film so far (whatever that might mean).
And it is also the Brothers at their darkest, with a mercilessly bleak humour that, at times, threatens to go full circle, leaving you questioning whether what you are shown is unwittingly hilarious, desperately sad, or – most likely – both. It is, of course, a brand of sub-humour that has been rife throughout the Coen Brothers’ career, but here it becomes even more acute.
As well as an unrelenting dark humour, however, this film also possesses an unwillingness to subscribe to the usual expectations or ethics of Hollywood (not to mention mainstream American indie cinema), presenting its disjunctive narrative not as some kind of ‘artistic’ affectation, but as something approaching de rigeur. Indeed, the Coens’ oblique humour is matched only by their asymmetrical plot devices, from the baffling faux-folktale pre-credit parable, to Larry’s dream sequences (which veer wildly from the clearly hallucinatory to the disorientatingly realistic).
With A Serious Man, the Coen’s have created yet another of their richly layered cinematic worlds, a world so complete that when the narrative is so disjointed, it’s even harder to render the distinctions between reality and fantasy, parable and fable, truth and myth.
Best film of 2009? Definitely. Best Coen Brothers film ever? Possibly, ask the Dude…