Quite a Bit of Tsuris

A Serious Man is a brilliant movie, one of the Coen Brothers’ best.

A Serious Man is just a brilliant movie, that perfect combination of dialogue writing, cinematography, performance, and storytelling that only happens in movies by the Coen brothers. The fact it got passed over (as it were) at the Oscars is just more evidence of how Jews just can’t catch a break in Hollywood.

Or more likely, it’s evidence that not enough people watched it; this movie is a very tough sell. I can’t point fingers at anybody else, since I passed on seeing it in theaters, and I’ve let the Netflix disc sit on my table for a week as I dreaded having to watch it. I’m a huge fan of the Coen brothers, Miller’s Crossing is my favorite movie of all time, and if I were being honest with my list of favorite movies, it’d be full of their work. But “black comedy about a suburban Jewish physics professor in 1967 who’s besieged by personal and work problems” never called out to me as something I’d be excited to watch.

I’d imagined it as a more Hebrew version of The Man Who Wasn’t There, one of the only movies by the Coens that didn’t work for me at all. Instead, A Serious Man is a little bit like what you’d get if No Country for Old Men hadn’t taken itself so seriously. The latter movie was plodding, relentlessly bleak and humorless, but was brilliantly filmed and had a genius script. A Serious Man is plodding, bleak, brilliantly filmed and written, and very, very funny. Even to a total goy like me.

As soon as I finish watching a movie, I can’t help but check out the reviews. What’s remarkable about A Serious Man is that few of the reviews I’ve read — even the positive ones — seem to get it, or at least they’re not able to describe what makes it work. Every one trivializes it or diminishes it in some way, almost as if describing the thing out loud makes it lose its power. Scenes that work perfectly in the movie seem trite when described with a simple synopsis. Each of the characters can be described in a single sentence or even a short phrase, but doing that doesn’t explain how even the simplest and broadest character becomes more than just a caricature when combined with everything else. So I’m reluctant to say much about the movie for fear that it’d be like trying to describe a painting or a piece of music: you’ve got to see it for yourself.

I will say something about the negative reviews, though, because several of them are unintentionally hilarious.

Ella Taylor of the Village Voice works herself into apoplexy over the film’s rampant anti-Semitism. She includes an Emperor’s New Clothes paragraph calling out every film critic who didn’t hate the movie as much as she did, accusing them of trying to hard to be cool or being anti-Semitic or both. And she all but directly calls the Coens hacks for dredging up material much better handled by Philip Roth and reducing the rest of the cast to broad, negative caricatures. That’s right, the film critic at the Village Voice who cries racism and anti-Semitism, name checks an author, and tries to out-smug every other film reviewer, is calling out someone else for using a caricature.

David Denby at The New Yorker is less shrill, but no less immune to irony. He hits most of the same points as Taylor’s review (including the name-checks and use of enough details to prove that he read the press packet), claiming that the Coens are in their “bleak, black, belittling mode,” making an “intolerable” movie filled with horribly unlikeable characters that exist only to be punished and mocked.

This kind of thing has been standard operating procedure for reviews of Coen brothers, through Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? all the way back to Raising Arizona and Blood Simple. And it amazes me that people are still so dense about the Coens’ work; they still don’t seem to appreciate that their reviews say more about the reviewer than they do about the film they’re supposed to be reviewing. They call the Coens smug and sadistic for presenting them with such horrible characters, when the movies themselves rarely, if ever, pass judgement. These movies tend not to have heroes and villains, at least not in the way reviewers want them to. The “heroes” are always sympathetic schlubs or perpetual fuck-ups. The closest they’ve come to an outright “hero” is a pregnant cop who talks funny. The “villain” is always life itself, or misfortune, or some undefined force of evil. The closest they’ve come to an outright “villain” is Anton Chigurh, who’s basically just the personification of chaotic evil.

It always seems painfully clear to me who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are in a Coen brothers movie, and there are more good than bad. They have a genuine affection or at least sympathy for their characters, and not in spite of their flaws, but often because of them. It’s usually clear which characters the Coens have no sympathy for, as well: being racist or anti-Semitic like the boss in Raising Arizona or the cops in Barton Fink is a sure-fire way to get cosmic come-uppance in the Coens universe. Taylor mentions that the fact the teenage daughter in A Serious Man is stealing money for a nose job is a tired example of anti-Semitism, when of course it’s not: it’s a very real and effortlessly vivid reaction to the rampant anti-Semitism in America in 1967, where an already self-conscious teenaged girl would be desperate to fit in. The Coens convey all of this with just a single line of dialogue and a subtle bit of casting (the daughter’s friends are all very Midwestern-looking gentiles), whereas I have to give a belabored explanation of it in text.

The Coens are profoundly populist, there’s almost always a moral center to their movies (even if the characters spend most of their time miles away from that moral center), and they almost never tell you what to think. But critics are so desperate to be in on the joke, to be a step above the movie and its characters and even the directors, looking down on the characters as they move around and say things before looking back up to the audience to sum up the story and deliver the final message. So they assume that everyone else is scrambling up right along with them. And they get angry when they can’t get to a high enough vantage point, where they can see what it all means and wrap it up with a pithy review and collect a paycheck and pat themselves on the back for being legitimate cineastes. They accuse the Coens and their fans of being arch and smug, completely unaware of their own hypocrisy: the thing that’s really frustrating them is that the Coens refuse to be arch and smug. They refuse to draw lines and make it clear who is supposed to be mocked — everyone is supposed to be mocked — so critics get angry and defensive because the Coens are mocking them.

Yet another point that Taylor gets completely wrong: she says that “either by accident or grand design, [Larry’s] life seems to get better all by itself.” Either she’d started to write her review before finishing the movie and she didn’t want to edit that paragraph, or she’d worked herself into such a blind rage that she didn’t see anything that happened after the bar mitzvah. Or, more likely, she was so intent on the movie’s having a “here is what it all means” moment that she didn’t understand how much meaning was packed into the end of the film. Much like the end of Fargo. Or Raising Arizona. Or Barton Fink. Or even Blood Simple*.

In fact, it’s happened so often that I can’t help but wonder if A Serious Man were made partly in response to it. If I had to sum up the movie’s message, I’d say that it’s all about a man struggling to find a message where there’s none to be found. He looks for it in rational science, others look for it in faith, or mysticism, or dentistry. But there is no convenient summary or neatly-described message; we can never see the whole, just bits and pieces and try to make sense of those.

But then, I’d have to realize that I’m over-intellectualizing it myself. In one of the special features, Joel Coen himself describes A Serious Man as a story that’s not about anything. At the end of the movie, after the ASPCA warning, is the note “No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture,” a gag that Denby caught, but decided to try and work into a pithy accusation against the Coen brothers instead of taking it for what it was: an acknowledgement that the movie is a comedy, and the surest way to ruin it is to over-think it. The quote that opens the movie is “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

* I’ve been waiting years to tell people what I think the ending of Blood Simple “means,” but nobody’s ever asked.