Thursday, February 4, 2016

Theory Thursday: "A Serious Man" is The Coen Brothers' Best Movie

Michael Stuhlbarg
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Hail, Caesar! is released in theaters nationwide.
Theory: A Serious Man is Joel and Ethan Coen's best movie.

Here's a question that may sound loaded, but has a few stock answers: What is your favorite movie from The Coen Brothers? Depending on your circles, the answer could either be Fargo, No Country for Old Men, or (among more casual fans) The Big Lebowski. To say the least, the two filmmakers with over 30 years of directing experience have made a ton of classics in American cinema. While the three aforementioned can be seen as stock answers, any of their other films are just as equally valid. While there's the few likely to never get that honor (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), there is technically no wrong answer - unless you say the wrong thing to a passionate fan. I consider myself to be very passionate, often turning to their work more often than their contemporaries. Having seen most of these films at least a few times by now, I can safely say that there's one film that feels like the odd man out when it comes to the consideration process.

I am talking about the 2009 film A Serious Man, which did manage to earn several Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), but may not be as beloved by Coen Brothers fans for clear reasons. It's very slow, very strange, and possibly the most Jewish film ever nominated for a Best Picture. There isn't that immediate iconography or memorable character that compares to Marge Gunderson (Fargo) or Barton Fink (Barton Fink). All you have is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg); a man whose life crumbles around him as his wife leaves him and he faces a potential catastrophe for his tenure thanks to an underachieving student. This is only the surface of the film's conflicting nature which attempts to answer its questions by suggesting that there is in fact no answer.

It could explain why the pre-credits sequence features a segment in Yiddish in which a Jewish couple is visited by a dead person who doesn't seem to do much of anything beyond laugh. The film continues to incorporate Jefferson Airplane into the mix and with excellent music cues transitions from traditional Jewish music to "Don't You Want Somebody to Love?" as the credits roll. What follows is the setup for which everything that follows is theoretically based off of. Larry has check-ups while his son goofs off in Hebrew school, preparing for his bar mitzvah. The conflicts are simple and take place in the Midwest during the late 60's where Larry's neighbor is Antisemitic and his wife is in love with a compassionate but boneheaded man (Fred Melamed), who thinks it's a better idea for him to move out.

The nature may be very frustrating, especially compared to The Coen Brothers' flashier styles. There's not a lot of crazy hairdos or absurdist humor. Most everything is based within character and the belief that there aren't any answers. It could be annoying to some to see the film's attempt at a happy ending thrust into a bigger series of conflicts. Larry solves his professional problems right as he gets bad medical news, and his son manages to pay off a bully right as a tornado is about to hit the school. The film, if anything, suggests that bad things will continue to happen, and they will never make sense. No matter how deep your faith is, it will all be baffling and only make you more confused. For those wanting convenience, you can turn to Fargo. For those that want a legitimately Coen Brothers movie, I doubt you'll find much fault with A Serious Man.

What separates this film from the rest? For starters, it is one of the very few absent of genre-trappings. It isn't a noir comedy like The Big Lebowski or a western like True Grit. It is merely a drama, and one that feels personal to the filmmakers at hand. The Jewish culture isn't entirely treated reverently, instead choosing to infuse personal moments between antagonistic children who can't sit during shiva to the pointlessness of junior rabbi speeches (or so it seems, thematically it adds weight). The film is if nothing else a personal drama that doesn't refuse to allow for the absurdist moments that make The Coen Brothers so important to film history. They are there, but now draped with a certain tragedy that feels absent from their bleakest film to date, No Country for Old Men; which may have been funny at times, but was always secondary to the peril aspect. A Serious Man does dark humor better solely by making it the conflict of existentialism.

In their prior film Burn After Reading, J.K. Simmons asks "What have we learned?" in a film with almost no point. Again, it's a perfect summary to The Coen Brothers' mindset, even if that 2008 spy comedy was among their less appreciated. Where that film feels like a thesis, this film is the essay to describe the deeper logic to a Coen Brothers film. While most can be described as having cohesive narratives, most have something that isn't quite right buried underneath the surface. While the film is a personal love letter to their childhood, it is also personal to their beliefs - both religiously and as storytellers. They reference uncertainty at every turn while trying to sound smart. It's a juxtaposition that can be seen in all of their work, and I don't think that it has been shown better anywhere else.

It may be a cop out to suggest that A Serious Man is their best because it explores The Coen Brothers as people, but I think it gives them more to work with. It may at times seem more conventional than The Big Lebowski or Inside Llewyn Davis, but it has deeper and more conflicting mysteries that will never be answered. Do they need to be? Not exactly. In an era where Hollywood is attempting to be more integrated, there's few films as outright focused on religion as this. It may be steeped in deep mythology, but it thankfully is as accessible as their other work - choosing to focus on guilt more than heady terminology. This may be also one of the only times where The Coen Brothers were entirely human and lacked anything supernatural. It may sound silly to say, but heightened comedy or drama adds a convenience to their other work that is missing here. Instead, we get characters who were beaten and dragged, making it to the end of the day by sheer willpower.

Most of all, the film feels strangely singular in comparison to their other work. Despite their ability to diversify their tone, A Serious Man is their last truly serious and overtly dark film. You could argue that Inside Llewyn Davis comes close, especially with the familiar "dragged and beaten" aesthetic, only with a cat tagging along. However, few films can properly explain why The Coen Brothers are like The Coen Brothers as well as A Serious Man because it explains their back story, their beliefs, their interests in mystery. All of these things may make for more entertaining movies elsewhere, but few films ground it as effectively as A Serious Man, and I feel it deserves some credit for how strangely it manages to tie everything together, leaving a satisfying collage of tragedy in one man's life while also raising thought provoking mysteries of faith and life in general. 

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