A Serious Man full movie review - Who cares? Why So Serious?
"For a good return, you gotta go bettin' on chance," a character says in the Coen Bros' "Miller's Crossing", "and then you're back with anarchy, right back in the jungle.
" His line encapsulates the point of virtually every Coen flick: nothing matters, chaos reigns, so just fck it and laugh at some idiots.
Few filmmakers encapsulate the tenets of postmodernism as purely as the Coens. Postmodernists vehemently deny any such thing as absolute truth, revel in nihilism, sarcasm and irony, reject all social context/objectivity and hold words and images to be viciously self-limited, all systems of signs only referring to other signs, all language a web of references.
As postmodernism is associated with relativism (anything goes, the era of "whatever"), such artists believe that no meaning can be derived from text other than whatever subjective meaning the interpreter assigns to it. Since there are no absolutes, the very linguistic symbols used by the author to communicate are undermined. With symbols undermined, surface re-arrangement becomes the artist's primary tool. Enter the age of "that's so random", of incessant pastiche and sampling (or as Andrew Moss calls the Coens, "agents of schizophrenia"). Gradually postmodernist art evolves to the point at which it starts to mirrors the universe it believes in: total randomness and utter nihilism. The universe of noir.
Every Coen flick is a hybrid of noir and screwball comedy. Noir, with its conspiratorial, indeterministic universe, being the one genre that aligns itself perfectly to the Coens' world-view (noir is screwball minus comedy). Hence a filmography which is exclusively about the world being "about" nothing other than random, cosmic causality.
This is the problem with being too intelligent for your own good. Everything either becomes a tongue-in-cheek homage, or you wallow in the dead end of intellectual limits, finding new and clever ways to soliloquise over the vacuity of existence. Woody Allen has made a career out of doing just this, both the Coens and Allen oscillating between "faux-serious" and "funny" formalist games about nothingness. Early Coen films ("Barton", "O Brother") even went so far as to deride socially conscious artists altogether. "Fck it, dude," is the Coen motto, as a title card in the Coens' "A Serious Man" essentially reads.
Of course everything is a bit "meaningless" ? but one should question the productivity of not taking the next step and asking, "So what now?" If the pointlessness of life exists only to be talked about and converted into art, then that talking and that art are just as pointless as life. Better, perhaps, to break through the wall, creating some meaning or finding some that has evaded you thus far. Which is why the mantra of cinema's late modernists was always "nothing matters, so everything does".
Aesthetically, all Coen flicks are genre mash-ups, thematically, a form of designer nihilism. With "Man" they take Bergman's existential movies and replace Christian iconography with Jewish iconography. The film begins in early 20th century Poland, where a Jewish couple battle over the identity of an elderly man. Is he a dead spirit, or is he simply flesh? This metaphysical enquiry runs across the entire film, in which a middle class Jew called Larry Gopnik finds himself caught in a noir plot in which all manners of cosmic and comic misfortunes befall him. Seeking a spiritual answer for his woes (is all chaos and chance? Does God exist?), and unable to face the temptations and immoralities he falsely believes a godless life to entail, Larry turns to various religious figures. He is a serious man, you see, a physics teacher with a savant brother likewise obsessed with finding signs. Through serious investigation he will surely get to the root of his troubles. A reason will be found!
And so Larry climbs his roof and surveys suburbia, searching for answers. "Look for God in the parking lot," one Rabbi advises. Later, prophetically, a car crash reorders the chaos of Larry's life. But is this proof of a guiding hand? An unseen order? "Who cares," a wise Rabbi who brushes aside the reading of all signs tells our hero, before recommending: "Helping others? Couldn't hurt."
"Man" ends with Larry's life derailing further (a tornado, the threat of illness), whilst simultaneously reassembling itself (job promotion, reconciliation with wife). In other words, the good and the bad are both entirely unpredictable and inextricable, a fact which serious Larry should have long realised, as he spends the first half of the film (as characters in the Coens' "The Man Who Wasn't There" do) literally lecturing his classroom on both the Uncertainty Principle and Schrodinger's Cat.
While Larry frets, his son, like the Dude Lebowski, simply abides. Interested only in music and TV, the kid coasts through life whilst listening to Abraxas, an album by Santana. With this album comes the film's philosophy. Throughout the film Larry rejects the Abraxas album - Abraxas being a Gnostic term for God - refuses to listen to it, whilst his son "gets God" by doing nothing. End result: Bobby McFerrin's "don't worry be happy" meets "Forrest Gump" (all Coen flicks are rifts on "Forrest Gump", where action is denigrated and inaction and idiocy are rewarded) meets "ET's" "be good". The year "Serious" was released, Woody Allen was serving up the same message with "Whatever Works": stop being serious, don't think, do whatever, find someone you love and fck everything else.
Of course the Coens are atheists, so they're not advocating the son's chilled out path to spirituality. Perpetually with a direct line to the heavens (shots of tunnels, funnels and headphones) and always listening to Jefferson Airplane ("When the truth's found to be lies, find somebody to love"), the kid is a stand in for the Coens and their one love. Cinema is their divinity, self-absorption is their art, each film retreating further away from a world they've long deemed both pointless and hostile.
7.9/10 ? Worth two viewings.