The Coen brothers always attempt to wring edge-of-your-seat tension out of thin air, to stir an audience into anticipation and give them an unexpected, almost non-existent payoff. It is one of the filmmaking duo's defining characteristics -- balancing heavy tension with pointless zaniness. That formula worked brilliantly well in last year's Burn After Reading, which took the Coens' penchant for silliness to the breaking point, making a film literally about nothing, where characters lie and conceal and kill one another over...absolutely nothing. Kinda brilliant, really.
Now, the brothers return with A Serious Man, which follows that formula a little too closely. This one skews a lot more cynical than Burn, and so it delivers its ironic oddities in a much drearier package. Yet the message remains the same: we are all wandering around this planet, dealing with trial after trial, adversity after adversity, and just when we think we have it all figured out, the next bomb drops. Whereas in Burn the filmmakers were just having balls-out fun, here they are being more philosophical, but the strategy is similar -- drama builds and builds and builds, and then BOOM...silly payoff. Surely the silliness has more of a point this time around, but while I loved every last minute of nonsense in Burn, it feels less organic here, as if the oddity is more a cop-out than a driving force. A Serious Man gives us a lot, but I wanted more.
Michael Stuhlbarg, a veteran stage performer, is fabulous as the Coens' leading man, Larry Gopnik, a professor whose life in the 1967 Midwest unravels a little more with each passing moment. He has a student bribing him for a higher grade just as he is being considered for tenure. His son is having problems at school as he nears the date of his Bar Mitzvah. His eccentric brother (Richard Kind) has invaded the house and may never leave. And his wife (Sari Lennick) has decided to leave him for a pontificating blowhard (Fred Melamed). There's also the intriguing ingenue next door who sunbathes naked and flirts with Larry. And, of course, the damn TV antenna keeps losing reception.
The Coens seem to simultaneously be swinging for the fences and checking their swing, like they have profound points to make but hedge their bets with a few doses of the same old schtick. Maybe that's because, as has been widely discussed, this represents the filmmaking duo's most personal movie, their first to truly delve into the minutiae of Judaism and growing up within its strict confines. The result is a very interesting picture that doesn't quite live up to its potential, a near-great movie with a few troublesome setbacks. But more than ever, the Coens appear to be inching slowly towards espousing a worldview, and boy is it bleak. In A Serious Man they seem to be saying, in a world full of this much folly, with this much daily, compounding, ridiculous struggle, there is no such thing as a "serious man." We all fumble around and try our best, but our best efforts invariably, inevitably fail. It is a futile quest...there are no serious men. Seems about right to me.