Monday, 21 December 2009

A Serious Film? The Coen brothers hit middle age

A Serious Man is a film that asks us to simultaneously empathise with and jeer at Larry, a middle-aged man whose life is a proverbial bag of shit heading towards an equally metaphorical fan. When I meet Joel and Ethan Coen at the London Film Festival, however, they are keen to emphasise that A Serious Man should not be taken quite so seriously.

Joel: It’s not completely autobiographical because the story is made up, but it certainly is a movie that takes place in a particular community. Consciously we set out to recreate the community that we grew up in. There are a lot of similarities to our own background there: we went to Hebrew school, we were Bar Mitzvahed , our father was a professor at a Midwestern university. We grew up in a house like that in a neighbourhood like that. All those things I guess you could say are in some sense autobiographical. But the story is fictional. (Pause) Neither of us were stoned at our Bar Mitzvahs.

Having cleared that detail up, they remain ambiguous in precisely where the fact-fiction line is drawn.

Joel: Larry, the character that Michael Stuhlbarg plays, is not anything like our father – he couldn’t be more different in many ways. The characters themselves weren’t meant to reflect real characters or members of our family or anything else like that. They’re based not on real people but they’re sort of hybrids of different things and impressions we’ve gotten from lots of different people.

Ethan, who has spent the first minutes of the interview staring down at the over-polished table and massaging his brow, now interjects.

Ethan: That’s right. Aaron’s character [Larry’s Columbia Record Club-subscribing son] is very much a very typical kid of that environment, and probably we were too. Not particularly like him but, you know, part of that time and place.

The Coen brother back catalogue is full of unique takes on well-stocked genres and unique collisions of multiple genres. A Serious Man, however, seems to hover – sometimes awkwardly – somewhere between drama and comedy, or between tragedy and folly. Are the Coen brothers finally growing up?

Ethan: Oh I don’t know. We don’t actually compare movies one to the other. We don’t really think about it much. Some of them are more genre pieces than others but this one isn’t the only one that doesn’t sit comfortably in a genre. And maturing? God, who knows? They all look equally juvenile to me.

During this diagnosis of his own lack of maturity, Ethan has peeled the label off of the bottle of mineral water in front of him, leaving a small heap of torn paper on the table.

A Serious Man does celebrate childhood, but alongside a far bleaker look at paternal adulthood. As well as taking a nostalgic glance back, does this film about a man undergoing a spectacular midlife crisis betray any of anxiety over a forthcoming middle age? Ethan giggles. An element of mild hysteria – brought on no doubt by a morning of similar interviews – is, it seems, already creeping up on him. laughing, he answers the question.

Ethan: No not in any specific way, but I don’t think either of us would have written this movie when we were thirty.

Joel: For all kinds of reasons.

Ethan: In a very impunible way, yes, only a middle-aged person could’ve written it.

It’s been twenty-five years since the release of Barton Fink (1984) but the Coen brothers are currently more prolific in their output than they have ever been. Spotting a potential common ground, I’m curious as to whether they ever find themselves pulling studentesque all-nighters?

Joel: Oh shit no!

Ethan: No, you know, it’s funny. Joel will say if he disagrees but I think it feels like we’re fairly lazy, and yet, relative to other people, we do seem to get a fair amount done.

He pauses.

Ethan: But I think that just reflects poorly on other people as oppose to well on ourselves.

Joel: What are they all doing?!

As a partnership, Ethan and Joel are unique in that the vast majority of their films are both written and directed entirely by themselves.

Ethan: It’s certainly easier if you can manage to generate or find your own material as oppose to being reliant on other people, because then you have an ownership of something. You can go out and try and do something with it yourself as oppose to waiting for people to offer you the opportunity to make something. I think that was true when we were starting out, and it’s probably still true now.

Next, the Coens will be returning to genre filmmaking with an adaption of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel True Grit. It is the wild western tale of a young teenage girl who sets out to avenge the death of her father at the hands of a disloyal family farmhand.

Joel: It’s a western. It was made into a movie once before in the late sixties with John Wayne. We’re going to star [long-time Coen brothers collaborator] Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin, and a fourteen-year-old girl who we haven’t cast yet – she’s really sort of the main character of the movie.

You read it here first.

A Serious Man is reviewed below >>>

The rabbi of suburbia: A Serious Man

* * * * *

Despite being the birthplace of many a filmmaker, Suburbia has always suffered something of a love-hate relationship with Hollywood. Think the sickly-sweet, conservative home pride of the Stepford Wives (1975), the insatiably gossip-hungry housewives in Edward Scissorhands (1990), the self-destructive psychoses of American Beauty (1999) or the disheartening claustrophobia of this year’s Revolutionary Road (2009)

With A Serious Man, however, the Coen brothers give a different and original treatment of this slice of American society. The surItalicprise of this Coen brothers film (and there always is a surprise) is that we get a realistic setting inhabited by realistic characters. Indeed, to be snobby of the suburbs would involve, for Joel and Ethan Coen, looking down on their roots; A Serious Man is full of touchingly autobiographical detail.

Living in a distinctly Jewish community in 1960s Midwestern America, the sort Joel and Ethan grew up in, Larry Gopnik is (like the directors' father) a university academic. Upon his wife leaving him for the excrutiatingly smooth Sy Ableman, Larry undergoes a spectacular, yet wholly believable, midlife crisis. Haplessly downtrodden by the expectations of his children (who want nose jobs and rock music, respectively), his students (a bribe-happy foreign student disappointed with his low grades), and his dependent, coach-surfing older brother, the fact that he is able to resist the temptations of his sultry, topless-sunbathing neighbour is something of a miracle; iced tea and marijuana is as far as the virtuous Larry will allow it to go.

Being a good man blighted by bad lack does not make Larry off limits for some trademark Coen digs. Far subtler than other Coen brothers films (the farcical Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading) much of the humour of A Serious Man lies in ­­­­Larry’s bewilderment in the face of his situation: his tired, submissive acceptance of a patronising hug from his wife’s new lover is at once both hilarious and depressing.

Faith, too, receives a gentle lampooning. A terrific, offbeat ‘traditional’ folk-tale (written by the Coen brothers) opens the film and establishes an authentic varnish of the Judaic traditions that pervade the rest of the film. Larry’s futile consultations with various rabbis – one, half his own age; anther, businesslike in his transaction of ‘wisdom’ – provide the film with some of its funniest scenes while also managing to convey a real sense of frustration.

Physics also falters where religion fails, hence the sublime dream scene in which Sy bangs Larry’s head against a blackboard scrawled over with the Chaos Theory. The suitably unsatisfying, inconclusive and ultimately terrifying ending is one remembered long after the credits.

The Coens avoid the tempting clichés of a 1960s suburban setting (not a Rolling Stones record within earshot), resulting in a wholly believable (if slightly caricatured) depiction of life in that time and that place. The absence of recognisable faces adds to the authenticity of the story; George Clooney reading from the Torah would have been hilarious, but perhaps for the wrong reasons.

What we get instead are uniformly perfect performances from relative unknowns, in a film from two writer-directors who have made a career out of incisive character-led comic dramas. Some fans of the Coen brothers’ films may be disappointed by a lack of madcap action, but others will find plenty to enjoy in a more mature, ambiguous and interesting film from this still-brilliant partnership.

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