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 surprise 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.