I’d always thought that ours was a generation of pussies, that next to our parents, we’re a bunch of indulged wasters, with the intellectual teat of the internet killing our sense of wanderlust, encouraging us to expect everything on a plate. Not only did our parents not have the Internet or Sky+, they had shit like World Wars, rationing, the 3-day week and Mike Yarwood to deal with.
But now I’m not so sure. We’re actually living in the worst era many of us will know - dominated by the terror threat, our own Vietnam situation, aggressive unemployment cutbacks, Chris Moyles and a pronounced economic downturn. The way you judge the fibre of society during a crisis is to look at the art that’s produced - during the Great Depression, they regressed into the comfort of traditional folkiness and sought heroic saviours, which gave birth to the original DC superhero comics.
But what is the underlying theme that dominates our times? Even greater self-inflicted suffering: whether it’s torture porn (which even the artsy French joined in with) or the intellectual thumbscrews of Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier’s Anti-Christ, we’ve proven that we are truly robust on a deep level.
Case in point - a friend was once telling me (yeah, it’s always a friend) about the trend for uploading videos of people’s reactions to the gross-out porn clip Two Girls One Cup. Whose reaction indicated the weakest constitution? A granny’s. Case closed (ignoring any arguments about media saturation leading to increased desensitivity).
Which brings me to A Serious Man, in which the Coen Brothers join in this vogue for intolerable cruelty by unleashing a torrent of misery on poor, harmless Jewish teacher Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the name of entertainment - and god bless them for it, if this kind of power-cut black comedy is what we get as a result.
With his son Danny’s bar mitzvah weeks away, Larry suddenly finds his life turning to absolute shit - first his wife calmly springs a divorce on him, dumping him for the astoundingly loathsome Sy Ableman, his job at the college comes under threat, he’s kicked out of his house and driven to the brink of financial ruin, while death and misfortune dog his every turn. Seeking guidance from his faith is no use - a string of rabbis seek to instruct him, only to prove that they’re of no use either. The poor sod has just got to cope with it on his own.
After the mainstream grandstanding of No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading, A Serious Man offers the chance for the Coens to reassert the indie credentials - shorn of a huge budget and A-listers, they’ve made a strikingly personal film, yet their sheer talent as film-makers means that this is still as great an achievement as many of their classics, and no less accessible.
It’s quite a simple, finely honed tale of a man questioning his fate and faith, but it’s executed with such majesty and brutality that you just have to bow down. Despite being steeped in Judaism and peppered with Hebrew, the legendary overriding dark Jewish humour makes A Serious Man a compulsive pleasure. One thing that the Coens do so well is convey comedic charm and depth of character by the merest of details - from the bow-legged teacher’s assistant to Danny’s pal’s rabid swearing and the playfully chewy dialogue you get such an immense feel for the characters.
Another of the Coens’ great traits is their ability to mess with the conventional ways of telling a story to make their work feel fresh: the classical narrative structure is to take a person, disrupt their life situation, allowing the film to become about them resolving that disruption and creating a new status quo before the end credits roll. Here, the boys totally go freestyle with that, spending the entire film disrupting Larry’s status quo, then scarcely even giving him the pleasure of a happy ending.
The casting is nigh on genius, too. Despite being packed with unknowns, they’re all perfect, from Fred Melaman’s luridly abominable Sy Ableman to the hapless rabbis struggling with the limitations of their teachings. Stuhlbarg holds it together with a turn of restraint that threatens to boil over at any moment. You can’t help but watch in admiration as the poor sod copes with all that’s thrown at him.
Sharp, poignant, funny and wise, A Serious Man represents a smarter entry into the Coens’ catalogue. With their ability to make films that drag the magical and the absurd out of the everyday, and their flair for a great story, the Coens have again shown that they’re among the more masterful film-makers around.
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed
Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen