The Coen Brothers are a singular filmmaking unit. Now sixteen films into their career, they refuse to make the same film twice, and their critical standing constantly fluctuating with a series of missteps (the misshapen The Lady Killers, the ill-conceived Intolerable Cruelty) and triumphs. Their last two films, No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading, show no signs of them gaining comfortable reliability, representing arguably their best, then worst films. It’s a mark of their varied talents that very few of their fans would come up with the same list of favourites among their oeuvre.
It should come as no surprise then that A Serious Man is anything but unexpected. Perhaps having worn thin their arch, detached style the Coens seem to have made yet another departure: they have made an honest, straight picture.
Set during the 1960s, in a milieu that is familiar from their own upbringing, the film tells the story of Larry Gopnik and his family as they fracture. Homosexual dalliances, divorce, pot-smoking and frolics with the neighbour’s wife: it’s a classic tale of urban ennui, along the lines of a middle-aged The Graduate.
If the subject is close to their hearts, then so is the level at which they choose to enter into it. There is a humanity in this film towards its characters that is uncharacteristic for the Coens, perhaps not seen since Fargo. For writers who seem to delight in indifferently beholding the folly of humanity (witness The Dude haplessly barrel around LA or a hairdresser find himself at the centre of a pulp nightmare in The Man Who Wasn’t There), they have entered into the struggles of a character like never before. It’s a successful move, perhaps one they’ve been waiting their whole careers to make. While no one could deny the pleasure of the detachment in pastiches like Miller’s Crossing or The Big Lebowski, it’s nice to see them roll up their sleeves and get into the dirty business of life and its variegated troubles.
Larry’s search for meaning vacillates brilliantly from the sublime to the ridiculous. Finding a cosmic response or order seems as likely as getting reception for his perennially detuned television. There is no attempt to belittle his struggle to find meaning, only at the impossibility of ever doing so. The Coens choose to buttress the central story of Larry with that of his wife, brother and son, showing that life is awash with uncertainty, doubt and difficulty at every stage. Without belittling this truth though, it’s a funny film, deploying the usual Coen knack for riding the line between the serious and the ridiculous – a foot in the woodchipper or a boundary dispute turned deadly.
However, it’s not without cliché, with many shorthands for middle-class despair and escape, but it has an assuredness and cohesion which has been lacking from their last three films (No Country for Old Men withstanding). The comic turns which you can rely on the Coens for are present (Sy Ableman, a cross between a Jewish Barry White and a kindly therapist, is hilarious as he attempts to make the process of stealing his wife as painless as possible).
It’s not a film with easy answers but the ride is so finely crafted that you’ll desire to return to it, to try to puzzle them out, or realise that perhaps there are none. As the first line of the film’s Jefferson Airplane leitmotif song run, ‘When the truth is found to be lies…’