For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

TIFF 09: "A Serious Man" (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, USA)

The Coen brothers may command the best line of the Toronto Film Festival—“Accept the mystery”—but just like von Trier’s faux-infamous “chaos reigns” in Antichrist, the Coens’ utterance is purely fraudulent.  The only difference is that von Trier knows it’s a joke and A Serious Man takes itself, well, you know.

No filmmakers could be less mysterious, but at first we must give the brothers’ new film some benefit of the doubt.  Its focus on the Jewish community of a small town in Minnesota in the 1960s and population mostly cast from unknowns indeed makes one wonder if the notoriously misanthropic auteurs are up to something new.  For a duo that naturally trends towards looking down on everyone like Coens live outside human society, such a setting indeed suggests a self-conscious portrait of outsiders, viewed outside in, as it were.  But the diagrammatic tendency of these master craftsmen undercuts any hope at “mystery;” those strange unsolved abstractions of No Country for Old Men, produced from the tension between the filmmakers and the Cormac McCarthy novel they were adapting, has evaporated.  Like their partner in crime in Toronto’s Cinema of Clockwork Small Towns Created By Misanthropes—Michael Haneke with White Ribbon—this is a cinema of such precise predetermination that the movies are in essence over before you even sit down to watch them.

This tale of a humble college professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who begins to question the point of it all when his wife up and leaves him is as mathematically tuned to illustrate the filmmakers’ point as Haneke’s Funny Games, another exercise in utterly brilliant cinematic prowess for a purpose that eventually dawns on one as utterly without point.  The film begins with a fairy tale allegory on perception and the meaning of life before starting the Minnesota story proper, but the story proper introduces not a single idea beyond this initial allegory.  The replete slovenliness of contemporary American cinematic craft of course paints the storyboarded precision of something like A Serious Man as true art, but as a film it is as plastic and inert as Fincher’s Benjamin Button, which shares its sense of pristine calibration for storybook morality: sit down while I tell you a tale about humanity without an inch of humanity in it.

That is not to say A Serious Man is not supremely entertaining, very funny, or strikingly composed—like Haneke, the Coens sure know how to make movies—but the expressive element of the movie is entirely missing.  All these qualities add up to nothing and fail to exist themselves as the wonderful details that populate a living cinematic world.  They are the dead things carefully arranged to suggest art and profundity, couched, as always, in the Coens’ utter superiority to whatever it is they are filming.  It is the most ridiculous kind of baiting and flattery for an audience—to make them feel masters of the world, better than and smirking at that which comes before them.  So I wonder, by the end, “what mystery am I supposed to be accepting?”

Deleted
This sounds like you have had a bias agaisnt the Coen brothers and their style.
I definitely sense a bias objective.
If by bias you mean opinion, well of course! They are misanthropic filmmakers, and that attitude towards their subject interacts with their filmmaking in interesting ways. Burn After Reading is a less well made film than this, less beautiful, but far superior because of the dynamic and sophisticated interaction between the filmmakers’ attitude and the story they are bringing to life. How can one not have a bias?
Burn your thesaurus, read some Hemingway, and look up the word “misanthrope” in the dictionary.
Deleted
All these qualities add up to nothing and fail to exist themselves as the wonderful details that populate a living cinematic world. They are the dead things carefully arranged to suggest art and profundity, couched, as always, in the Coens’ utter superiority to whatever it is they are filming. Regard for Coens/Haneke’s obvious skill notwithstanding, this is the root of my problem with their work as a whole. There is no joy to be had at all in Haneke’s icy lecturing. Quickly, I begin to resent it. The Coens manage a bit better here, but not by much: their snark and supercilious (dis?)regard is so tedious that I often wonder at the conclusion exactly why I bothered.
Aaron: I’m well aware what the term means and how accurately it applies to the films of the Coens.
Tim
Another Daniel Kasman review, another review that fails to consider the film on its own merit and focuses on the director’s body of work instead.
during the eulogy sy abelman is called a serious man by the rabbi nachtner. he also speculates whether abelman is lamed vavnik. this is a jewish mystic belief that every generation has 36 righteous among them that prove man’s worthiness to god. the world’s existence is dependent upon them and if one dies then another anonymously assumes his place. sy was the serious man that larry wasn’t. it sounds like you’re seeing the world through tired eyes. there’s no mystery here. maybe you could ambiguously bash movies with innocuous comments for christian or catholic papers. troll right.

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features