Oh, those Coen Bros. Love 'em or hate 'em, there's no denying they make technically stunning films (as opposed to movies) with a distinct auteurist voice, and they keep churning them out, gaining Oscars or being ignored, producing a body of work that seems to exist in its own private cinematic universe, about as free from matters of market and popular taste as the oeuvre of Woody Allen.
I've had a conflicted relationship with their work from the get, exalting in some (count me in as a happy member of the cult of Lebowski), reviling a few (I'm of the minority underwhelmed by No Country, which struck me as a particularly mean-spirited formal exercise) and being merely puzzled by others (a decade from now, will anyone want to take a second look at Intolerable Cruelty?).
The thing that's been consistently disturbing in their films, from Blood Simple onward, is their attitude. More often than not, in watching even one of the great ones, say Fargo, you're left wondering: Do Joel and Ethan even like these people? In some cases, an aura of not-so-thinly-veiled contempt seems to hover around protagonists and walk-on characters alike. You identify with their hapless heroes and anti-heroes at your own peril, because in the Coen-ian universe, naive hope will assuredly be trumped by random disaster, and there's always a sense that the joke is deservedly on us. A working title for their collected works might be Stupid Human Tricks: A Celebration.
However: Finally, at this late date, the Brothers Coen have pulled away the curtain of their dispassion, and made a movie that explains a whole lot. A Serious Man offers, among its many pleasures, a reasonable explanation for their peculiar sensibility: the Coens are a couple of middle-class Reformed Jews who grew up in a small Minnesotan suburb in the '60s, and their dad was an academic.
Inarguably their most personal work, Serious Man provides us with a context for their black-humored point of view; it fills in the background on the existential shrugs that have been the hallmark of their filmmaking for years. Leave it to these guys to take on what was once the province of European heavyweights like Ingmar Bergman, and frame the same question - What is God trying to tell us, if anything, and why do we have such terrible reception? - in the province of Jolly Roger Inns, the Columbia Record Club and Manischewitz Wine.
Though they're quick to point out the differences between fiction and autobiography in this brief interview (which also offers tantalizing sequel talk re: Barton Fink), the Coens have provided us with a portrait of their seminal coming-of-age years - caught on the cusp of cool, listening to Jefferson Airplane stoned during Torah class, in a community filled with naturally caricature-like neighbors and family members fraught with all manner of dilemmas. It was a place where acquaintances might drop dead and Wizard of Oz-like tornadoes appear at equally inopportune times.
Full disclosure: I was a Hebrew School dropout, and my wife grew up in a town within bicycling distance of the one the Coens depict here, so our mutual delight in this movie is admittedly subjective. A contemporary take on the story of Job, it features no stars, has a plot constructed of perversely arbitrary twists, and refuses to answer the fundamental queries posed by its poor protagonist's ever-escalating tsuris. It's nonetheless one of the most visually arresting, darkly funny and philosophically intriguing films you'll see this year.
Like Bright Star - another movie I've blogged about recently that will probably make all of about ninety dollars at the American box office - A Serious Man may also provide an antidote to this week's soul-crushing studio fare (don't get me started on Couples Retreat). To see it on the big screen, it wouldn't hurt.