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The Auteurs Daily: Toronto. A Serious Man

The Auteurs Daily

A Serious Man

Daniel Kasman's already cast a skeptical eye on the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen. Here's what others have been saying...

"A Serious Man inhabits that happy middle ground where the Coen brothers' most endearing movies reside," writes the Chicago Reader's JR Jones: "it's neither a flat-out misanthropic farce (Burn After Reading, The Ladykillers) nor a genre rehash (The Man Who Wasn't There, Blood Simple), but a comic parable that treats its characters with some measure of understanding and charts its own path without looking over its shoulder to earlier movies. Like Fargo and The Big Lebowski, it has all the earmarks of a personal statement, one of those movies that their biographer will use to connect the dots after they're gone."

"Copping at long last to their own Jewish - and Wonder Years - upbringing, the brothers have delivered the remembrance-of-things-past movie that too many directors louse up by doing before they've had time to develop any perspective," writes Tom Carson for GQ. "If you've ever wondered where the Coens got their fascination with this country's unwitting subcultures, it's pretty clear from A Serious Man that they started by keeping alert tabs on their own."

"The characters are all a collection of 'Jews you know,'" writes the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris. "The nebbish, the nag, the hypochondriac, the cheapskate, the know-it-all. They rant. They kvetch. They waddle. There's a mounting intensity to the storytelling, as if all the archetypes were being brought to a boil. But it's as much of a heartless shrug as last fall's Burn After Reading. That movie made me worry that the brothers had lost touch with humanity. This one suggests they've lost touch with their adolescent selves. But if nothing else they're true to their contemptuous sensibility."

"Cast almost exclusively with relatively unknown New York theater actors, A Serious Man contains the autobiographical subtext of the Coens' upbringing in the Minneapolis suburban Jewish milieu and transposes it on St Louis Park in 1967." Patrick Z McGavin for Stop Smiling: "Opening with a Yiddish-language prologue about jealousy, guilt and animating the dead in a Krakow village, A Serious Man is a Bellovian comedy of manners that equals Herzog as a fanciful, hilarious and discomfiting story of a man's quest to reconcile his spiritual anguish and emotional faith against the material demands of daily existence."

Counting off the challenges this film poses to the guys in Marketing - that cast of unknowns, that milieu - Mike D'Angelo, writing for Not Coming to a Theater Near You, suggests that this film "may be the most admirably perverse undertaking since Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima. Which doesn't make it any good, alas.... It's their most nakedly personal film, and I say: Get dressed, fellas."

But for Tom Hall, the Coens "have delivered what will surely become a classic, a film for all audiences that underscores its deep, philosophical questions about faith and fury with a knowing smile. Brilliant."

"The film navigates its protagonist through a late-60s sea of bullies, yentas, backstabbers, and parasites, hitting moments of pitiless cosmic doubt that shame No Country for Old Men's frigid cynicism," blogs Fernando F Croce at Slant. "Bleak, hilarious, remarkable."

"This is brilliantly funny, brilliantly quotable stuff, all of it shot through with a biting black edge backed up by a surprisingly bleak conclusion," writes Todd Brown at Twitch.

"Jewish customs, from numerology to the Bar Mitzvah ceremony - which provides the context for one of the best drug-haze sequences since The Big Lebowski - give the story its color and contours, but faith itself - not the Jewish faith - is the subject at hand." For Michael Hogan at Vanity Fair, "it's hard to say which would be more frightening: a universe without order and meaning or one ruled by a God who rains suffering down on his hapless children for reasons known only to himself."

More from Noel Murray (A-) and Scott Tobias (B+) at the AV Club; and from Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Todd McCarthy (Variety), Matt Riviera, Jan Stuart (Screen) and Anne Thompson.

Via Movie City News: Cathleen Falsani in the Toronto Star on the "spirituality of the Coen brothers."

Update, 9/22: "I continue to see their films because unlike other people I've written off," writes Rob Davis for Paste, "they are such technical wizards - in the way they structure stories, the way they tell jokes, and the way they play with themes - that I'm always hopeful they'll marry their skills to worthy material. And they finally have."

Update, 9/27: Shawn Levy talks with the Coens for the Oregonian.

Updates, 9/29: "If Philip Roth and Franz Kafka sat down to write an adaptation of the Book of Job, the result might be something like A Serious Man," suggests Alonso Duralde at MSNBC.

"Are the Coens jokers who tread on despair, or tragedians with a penchant for death's-head humor?" asks Fernando F Croce in Slant. "Either way, Serious Man is their bleakest comedy. Its spiraling slapstick cruelty encompasses elements from both the lugubrious No Country for Old Men and the antic Burn After Reading, yet it easily outclasses both by endowing the put-upon puppet with a human dimension so that laughter is caught in our throats."

"A Serious Man is the Coens' true follow-up to their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men - a Jewish take on the question of cosmic injustice," argues David Edelstein. "As in No Country, no one sees the entire picture - except, perhaps, the Almighty, who is, if He exists, a crueler jokester than even the makers of Blood Simple and Burn After Reading. The vision is mordant and absurdist - but not nihilistic. The Coens open with a quote from Rashi: 'Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.' The lesson of Larry Gopnik is how to lose gracefully."

Gopnik is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, whom Eric Kohn profiles, also in New York.

David Denby in the New Yorker: "As a piece of moviemaking craft, A Serious Man is fascinating; in every other way, it's intolerable."

Jada Yuan talks with Amy Landecker for Vulture.

Online viewing tip. "A Serious Man is basically just Barton Fink revisited, with the surrealism dialed way down and the Jewish angle shoved front and center," argues Mike D'Angelo at the AV Club, where he shows us a scene from Barton Fink which "vividly demonstrates, in unsettling miniature, the Coens' remarkable, underappreciated knack for depicting genuinely complex emotional states via broad, cartoonish exaggeration. To put it another way, it's a potent reminder of the soul-rattling power of pure expressionism."

 

A Serious Man

 

Updates, 10/1: "Neither the Holocaust nor Israel is mentioned in A Serious Man, which also limits the American 1960s to marijuana and the Jefferson Airplane, as if Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the urban riots had never happened." AO Scott in the New York Times: "Objectively, and compared with just about any of his ancestors, Larry Gopnik inhabits an earthly paradise, free from persecution, discrimination and want, surrounded (with a few exceptions) by his own kind, and with nothing to worry about but his job, his family and his God. Needless to say, he's miserable. But his unhappiness makes for a pretty good joke."

"The Yiddish shtetl shtick that opens Joel and Ethan Coen's new movie - a Jewish peasant stumbles on an old Hasid who may or may not be a Dybbuk - is pretty clumsy, but at least it tips its hat to the great existential comedy that A Serious Man might have become, if it wasn't buried beneath an avalanche of Ugly Jew iconography," finds Ella Taylor in the Voice.

"This is by far the most personal and revealing film the Coens have ever made, which might not seem like saying much," writes Andrew O'Hehir, introducing his interview with the Coens for Salon. "They're known for creating mannered, sardonic fictional worlds shaped as much (or more) by film history as by real life. But in recapturing the vanished realm where they grew up - a self-enclosed world of Midwestern Jewish suburbia - the Coens have crafted perhaps their most original work, one that presents itself, early on, as middleweight middle-American domestic comedy before revealing a strange and secret power that's closer to magic or myth."

"By providing a labyrinthine commentary on American insecurity and confusion... their vision becomes nothing less than Talmudic," finds Michael Joshua Rowin in the L Magazine.

More from Sam Adams (IFC), Noel Murray (AV Club), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York) and Armond White (New York Press). More interviews with the Coens: David Fear (TONY) and Stephen Saito (IFC).

Updates, 10/2: "'How odd of God' goes an old bit of doggerel 'to choose the Jews.'" Once again, AO Scott: "And how perversely fitting that Joel and Ethan Coen... should elect to examine the deep peculiarity and calamitous consequences of this choice. The vein of fatalistic, skeptical humor that runs through so many of their movies has frequently had a Jewish inflection, both cultural and metaphysical. Here, that inheritance, glancingly present in movies like Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski, is, so to speak, the whole megillah."

For Glenn Kenny, this is "completely seamless hybrid of their putatively mature mode with their outrageous cartoonish one.... Go see this thing. Seriously."

"A Serious Man is an exquisitely realized work," writes Slate's Dana Stevens; "the filmmakers' technical mastery of their craft, always impressive, has become absolute. The script reads like a novel, densely allusive, funny, and terse.... But the Coens' degree of control over their audience's aesthetic experience can feel almost claustrophobic."

"[T]he treasures of A Serious Man are universal," writes Brandon Harris at Hammer to Nail. "Here's hoping that it doesn't seem too parochial for the masses."

Update, 10/3: "It's methodical, distancing and sarcastic, like all of their movies," writes Justin Stewart in Stop Smiling. "And like all of them, it's exciting cinema, 'eminently watchable,' as one of its characters would say. Fans for any reason expecting a leapfrog over past achievements will be disappointed."

Update, 10/4: Online viewing tip. More nice work from Jamie Stuart: "A Serious Man Red Carpet."

Updates, 10/6: Cathleen Falsani, religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, at FilmInFocus: "While A Serious Man is certainly the most overtly religious (and perhaps most obviously self-referential if not autobiographical) of the Coens' films, the spiritual themes in it are the thread (or the rug, if you will) that ties the rest of their oeuvre together."

Jeffrey M Anderson interviews Stuhlbarg at GreenCine Daily.

Online viewing #1. David Poland talks with Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind and Sari Lennick.

Online viewing #2. Making Of's got clips of the Coens directing.

Updates, 10/7: For Vanity Fair, John Lopez traces the "Coen Brothers' Century in Cinema." They've "compiled a filmography to teach an AP US History class from. That is, if you wanted to explode every starry-eyed myth this country thrives on and send Norman Rockwell popping wheelies in his grave."

"What the Coen brothers are trying to tell us," a photo gallery in the Chicago Tribune with commentary by Glenn Whipp.

Updates, 10/8: "Regardless of the Coens' satiric take on Judaism, religiously or culturally, their stylish outlandishness here makes sense, identifying the Gopniks and their ilk as properly out of the 1967 mainstream, aesthetic and otherwise," writes Michael Koresky in Reverse Shot. "As usual for the Coens, it's an outsider's view, but this time it's made by insiders. And that disconnect makes their ambivalence resonate differently than before; there's a real fear trembling below the surface now."

"This isn't a laugh-laugh movie, but a wince-wince movie," writes Roger Ebert. "Those can be funny, too.... Remember that many parables contain their message in their last lines."

Updates, 10/10:

 

"It's not a departure, exactly - except in the way all their films are departures," writes Sean Nelson in the Stranger. "It's an expansion, a magnification, a breakthrough. Yes, like all their movies, it's kind of a big joke, but a joke with the darkest punch line ever. The Coen brothers, who for 25 years have been called cold formalists with more interest in Steadicams and storyboards than in human characters, have made a movie about the twilight of the Jewish soul."

The New Republic's Christopher Orr: "In one of his sessions with an unhelpful rabbi, Larry pleads, 'Why does God make us feel the questions, if he's not going to give us any answers?' After watching A Serious Man, one might be forgiven for posing the same query to the Coens."

"Does it all come down to life as a joke with a bitter punchline?" asks Sean Axmaker. "I don't think so. Under the eccentric characters and cultural oddities and curve-ball narrative is a film as painfully funny as it is profoundly and richly human, a thoughtful portrait of vulnerability and resilience in the face of uncertainty, and to date the definitive treatise on the world according to the Coens."

Updates, 10/15: "As one who grew up in an adjacent Minneapolis suburb with a few years' head start," writes Duncan Shepherd in the San Diego Reader, "I can attest to the film's value as an historical document, attest in particular to the plaid shirts and ankle-length pants, to the haircuts and glasses frames, to the lawns and houses, to the deer-hunting gentile neighbor, to the Coens' eye and ear for local enterprises, the Red Owl supermarket, the Embers family restaurant, the Jolly Roger motel, the Log Cabin coffee shop, the Oak Knoll country club (my elementary school was in point of fact Oak Knoll). As one raised a Lutheran, leniently 'confirmed' without completing my catechism, I must yield to the brothers' view of the Jewish community.... The Coens are often taken by their detractors to be nothing more than cold-hearted wisenheimers, and in fairness they often content themselves to pretend to be cold-hearted wisenheimers. But the pretense looks to me to be a form of modesty. Let the film speak for itself, and believe the pretense at your poverty. These are serious men."

For Salon, Jed Lipinski asks James Toback, Mary Harron, Molly Haskell, Aaron Hillis, Glenn Kenny and more, "Which Coen film rises above all others?"

Sam Adams talks with the Coens for the AV Club.

"What do they care about?" asks Jonathan Kiefer in the Faster Times. "What had they hoped to extract from this particular plot of personal history? Maybe they did intend a satirically affectionate commemoration, or even a Voltairean denunciation of faith-based optimism, but in any case what they've made seems more like some sort of long-deferred, highly disciplined tantrum."

"There's a lot to chew on here, hefty themes visualized in that droll, classically out-sized Coen fashion," writes Sean Burns in the Philadelphia Weekly. "My favorite touch is a towering wall of blackboards, every inch filled with Larry's frantic mathematical attempts to prove the Uncertainty Principle. 'Even if you don't understand this, you will be responsible for it on the midterm,' he notes, inadvertently summing up the character's central philosophical conundrum."

Andrew Schenker: "You go in expecting revelation - or at least something more than cynical gags - and you emerge with nonsense."

TIFF 09: Index; full coverage; lineup.

 

Even the more negative comments only make me want to see this one more. The Coen’s get the benefit of the doubt for me. Whenever I hear someone decry their films I always think how sad it is they’re missing out.
trust me, see it, it’s good. people who want answers laid out before them, without going through the work of asking questions to get the answers, unsubstantiated answers from others, miss the whole reason for witnessing the situations in the first place.

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