A Serious Man

‘Receive with simplicity all the things that happen to you.’
– Rashi, 12th-century Jewish scholar

‘I read the book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out well in it.’
– Virginia Woolf

We’ve been to see the new Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man.  They’re back on top form with this one – very funny, acutely observed and some great filmic moments such as the transition from the 19th century shtetl prologue literally down the ear canal of  the protaganist’s teenage son Danny to the accompaniment of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody To Love’.

The film recounts the unravelling fortunes of Larry, a professor of theoretical physics, living with his wife, Judith, his teenage son and daughter, and his decidedly eccentric brother in a new housing development in the late sixties. As Roger Ebert has written:

We learn from the Book of Job: Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. Such a man is Larry Gopnik. He lectures on physics in front of a blackboard filled with bewildering equations that are mathematical proofs approaching certainty, and in his own life, what can be sure of? Nothing, that’s what. His wife is leaving him for his best friend. His son is listening to rock ‘n’ roll in Hebrew school. His daughter is stealing money for a nose job. His brother-in-law is sleeping on the sofa and lurking in unsavory bars. His gun-nut neighbor frightens him. A student tries to bribe him and blackmail him at the same time. The tenure committee is getting unsigned libelous letters about him. The wife of his other neighbor is sex-crazy. God forbid this man should see a doctor.

The Coen brothers’ latest film is the most daring project they have ever undertaken. It is mordant. It is philosophical. It addresses all the big questions. It is frequently hilarious.
Joe Queenan, The Guardian

From The Guardian review:

Joel and Ethan Coen have bookended the decade with a superb film at the very beginning, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), and another two stormers at the end: their superlative adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men in 2007 – and now this sublimely funny, involving, utterly distinctive serio-comedy of mid-life crisis set in the American midwest in the 1960s, which happens to be where and when the Coen brothers themselves were brought up.

Euphoric, sad and thoughtful all at once, this strange and wonderful film is rounded off with a gloriously well-crafted apocalyptic vision and a chilling intimation of divine retribution for earthly wrongdoing.

And from The Observer:

Joel and Ethan Coen, the first and still the most distinguished of the succession of recent film-making partnerships between American brothers, were born and raised in the Midwest by Jewish academic parents but went to university on the East Coast. They made their joint movie debut in 1984 with a hard-nosed noir thriller set in Texas, and over the next 25 years, always working together (and latterly sharing credit as director), they’ve only made a single film set in their native Minnesota and only one in which the characters are predominantly Jewish…

Now the Coens have brought together their home state and their Jewish upbringing with a characteristically quirky, darkly humorous movie set in an unnamed Minnesota town in 1967, at which time Ethan would have been 10 and Joel 13. The brothers invariably have some literary or cinematic model lurking behind their work: it was Homer’s Odyssey and Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, for instance. Here it is the Old Testament Book of Job and the wry Jewish fictions of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, which were becoming almost the dominant force in American literature at the time the film is set…

This film is at once laugh-out-loud funny and deeply serious, troubling and satisfying, warm and bleak, both respectful of the Jewish heritage and mocking its restrictions and false comforts. And at the end, Larry and his family are left teetering on the edge of an abyss, looking for shelter as a storm gathers and the future approaches.

A Serious Man: trailer

The Coen Brothers

Combining thoughtful eccentricity, wry humour, arch irony, and often brutal violence, the films of the Coen brothers have become synonymous with a style of filmmaking that pays tribute to classic American movie genres, especially film noir, while sustaining a firmly postmodern feel. Born in St. Louis Park, MN, in 1954, Joel Coen studied at New York University before moving into filmmaking in the early ‘80s. He and his younger brother began writing screenplays while Joel worked as an assistant editor on good friend Sam Raimi’s 1983 film The Evil Dead. In 1984, they made their debut with Blood Simple. Both of them wrote and edited the film, while Joel took the directing credit and Ethan billed himself as the producer. It earned considerable critical acclaim and established the brothers as fresh, original talent. Their next major effort, 1987’s Raising Arizona was a screwball comedy miles removed from the dark, violent content of their previous movie, and it won over critics and audiences alike. Their fan base growing, the Coens went on to make Miller’s Crossing (1990), a stark gangster epic with a strong performance from John Turturro, whom the brothers also used to great effect in their next film, Barton Fink (1991). Fink earned Joel a Best Director award and a Golden Palm at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, as well as the festival’s Best Actor award for Turturro.

Their 1994 follow-up to Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, was a relative critical and commercial disappointment. Whatever failings The Hudsucker Proxy exhibited, however, were more than atoned for by the unquestionable success of the Coens’ next film, Fargo (1996). A black, violent crime comedy with a surprisingly warm heart. The brothers shared a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for their work.  The Coens went on to make The Big Lebowski in 1998. A blend of bungled crime and warped comedy, Lebowski was a laid-back, irreverent revision of the hardboiled L.A. detective genre. In 2000 the Coens moved into the depression era with O Brother, Where art Thou?, an admittedly loose adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, starring George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson as escaped convicts on a surreal journey through 1930s Mississippi. The following year found Joel the recipient of his third Best Director award at Cannes for the darkly comic, monochromatic post-noir The Man Who Wasn’t There, starring Billy Bob Thornton as a humble, small-town barber who gets mixed up in a tangled web of blackmail and deceit. Two years later, Joel and Ethan re-teamed with Clooney for Intolerable Cruelty, a film that represented their version of a ‘30s screwball comedy. The film was noteworthy in that it was the first movie made by the brothers that did not originate with them; they rewrote a script that was already in existence.  2004 saw the release of the Coens’ first remake, The Ladykillers starring Tom Hanks.After a three year layoff from movies, the brothers returned with an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. The taut but philosophically minded thriller opened to nearly universal praise and became one of the two films to dominate year end critics and industry awards. Joel and Ethan won the best Director award from the Director’s Guild of America, and found themselves nominated as directors, writers, and producers at that year’s Oscar telecast.
– from AllMovie.com

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