Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t usually accused, even by their most ardent devotees, of making intensely personal films (unless, of course, you count their technique as personal, or their attitude). What’s more, in a quarter of a century of moviemaking, the Coens have never dealt deeply and explicitly with their Jewish heritage. (Not that there’s anything wrong with not dealing with it.) And that makes A Serious Man, their remarkable new film, something of a landmark in the Coen universe. It’s set in 1967 in an unnamed, amusingly flat and nondescript Midwestern city (very much, the Coens claim, like the Minnesota town in which they grew up), and it’s about a fractious, scrambling, and deeply anxious Jewish family, in particular the perpetually rattled physics-professor father, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is doing everything he can to be a mensch, but whose life is coming apart at the badly tailored seams. He’s a bespectacled, clean-cut Tevye with the spilkes spilling out of him, only in this case there’s a faulty TV antenna rather than a fiddler on the roof.
A Serious Man has a spectacular opening. There’s a prologue — a made-up Yiddish folk tale about an unhappy shtetl couple who meet a dybbuk (a malevolent spirit) — and then, to the building, surging beat of the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” the camera moves through a mysterious tunnel and fastens, in disorienting close-up, on a hard white plastic object, moving down a wire to reveal…a transistor radio, which 12-year-old Danny (Aaron Wolff) is listening to, with his primitive ’60s earphone, in Hebrew school. The contrast between the song, heard almost from the inside out, and the setting is so incongruous that it’s profound: This, the Coens are telling us, is the double world of the film — the sensual romantic dreams that come at you from the outside (“Don’t you want somebody to love?”), and the slightly airless, still ritualized, scrappily communal, quaintly rule-bound existence of middle-class American Jewish life in 1967.
It’s no great surprise that the Coens, working with affectionate mockery, depict this world of cinder-block synagogue banality in as archly exotic terms as they did the loopy Scandinavian-American winterscape of Fargo. The bar mitzvah study albums, the grotty low-ceilinged tract homes dotted with tchotchkes, the sad-sack mishegoss uncle (Richard Kind) who loafs on the couch (and is filling a notebook with a brilliant/crazy physics manifesto that explains the universe), the nerdy Jewish kids on the school bus who turn talking “tough” into a kind of Talmudic exercise: It’s all presented with the deadpan clarity of sociological science fiction.
Yet the Coens, you must understand, aren’t merely subjecting their ethnic heritage to another one of their formalist gimcrack exercises. This nebbishy late-’60s world is as authentic, in its way, as the early-’60s urban/suburban enclaves of Mad Men, and there’s a very grand joke at the heart of A Serious Man. It’s that the middle-class Jews of the postwar era felt that they had finally achieved assimilation, yet in their habits and conversation, their hilariously unwieldy last names (which the Coens use as wicked punchlines), and their compulsion to view the consumerist America they’d adopted as a place that didn’t fully make sense, they were a profoundly discombobulated tribe, assimilated everywhere but in their heads.
Larry’s life, for instance, has become a series of catastrophes. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants to leave him for a hucksterish local widower named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); Danny, on the eve of his bar mitzvah, is an intellectual dropout interested in nothing but his radio and F-Troop; and Larry’s upcoming tenure hearing looks shaky, in part because of an anonymous letter-writing campaign branding him a pervert. Plus, a failing Korean grad student offers him a bribe, which is really a threat. One after another, Larry consults the local rabbis, who are really just shopping-mall shrinks in prayer shawls, and who have no actual advice for him (or, better yet, they have parables that explain everything…and nothing).
The driving question of A Serious Man is this: Are the “problems” that define Larry’s existence somehow karmic creations of his own inability to deal with them? His community, his culture, keeps asking him to grin and bear it, to accept his fate with a shrug. Yet the grim comedy of Larry’s life is that he’s doing just what the Talmud taught, trying to be a serious man, whereas everyone around him seems much happier by giving up on all that and reducing loyalty to their Jewish heritage to a kind of cultural version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. A Serious Man isn’t perfect — I’m still grappling with the powerfully offbeat ending — and with its celebrity-free ethnic cast I’m not sure if it’s in the position to do even a quarter of the Coens’ usual box office. But it’s an audaciously funny, original, and resonant movie in which the Coens spring the neat trick of finally showing you a bit of who they are, or at least where they came from.
If you see one austerely hopeless and depressing movie this year about a father and son wandering through a junk-strewn post-apocalyptic wilderness as they struggle to fight off demons of fear, madness, and starvation, not to mention roving bands of cannibalistic killers, then by all means make that movie The Road. When the release date of this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated novel was postponed from the end of last year to the end of this year, it was only human to wonder if there was something wrong with the film. But The Road, much as I ended up having mixed feelings about it after it screened here in Toronto, is on some level a dedicated and accomplished movie.
Viggo Mortensen, caked in grime, plays the father with a fierce physicality and tremulous inner woundedness, and visually The Road is one of the most spookily convincing, least “movieish” visions of a nuclear-wasteland future I’ve ever seen. (It’s never made explicit that there was a nuclear war, but given the ashy deadness of everything on screen, that’s certainly what it looks like.) The wreckage and twisted clutter, some of it quite spectacular, never seems like it was planted there by a set designer; it’s an organic part of the landscape. This debris has integrity, almost the way that the ruined city of Full Metal Jacket did.
Yet The Road, for all its creepy desolation, remains a curiously unmoving experience — or maybe not so curious, given that not all that much really happens in it. In the novel, McCarthy played off post-apocalyptic Hollywood thrillers, but he omitted the action, making the material interior and refined. It was still like seeing a movie on the page, though. Whereas done as a movie, The Road is like a zombie thriller made with a murky veneer of art-film “taste.” The darkest note in the story — it’s what no sci-fi blockbuster would dare include — is the Mortensen character’s despairing realization that he must be prepared at any moment to fire a bullet into his beloved son, should they be captured, since the bandits who roam the land would rape and kill the boy if he didn’t. That’s a haunting thing to live with, but it’s not enough to make The Road fully dramatic. I’m not sure if delaying this film’s release for a year really helped its cause. There’s enough darkness in the land right now as it is to make sitting through a movie like The Road just feel like one more very heavy burden.