I wish I could write a thoughtful, penetrating review of the Coen Brothers’ latest offering, A Serious Man, but to be perfectly honest, the film threw me off. I appreciate it, and relate to it (especially as a Jewish man who remembers his bar mitzvah—and the 1960s—all too well)—but I don’t know quite what to make of it. The Coens have said this is “a schlemiel story,” which is…
as good a description as any: a comedy, in the blackest sense, about an ordinary guy in suburban Minnesota, circa 1967, who teaches at a local college, supports his woebegone brother, and does his best to maintain a marriage while raising two adolescent children. When everything—but everything—starts going wrong in his life he has just one question: why? Even his rabbi can’t provide an answer.
If you find that bare-bones description funny in itself, you’re a prime candidate to enjoy this film; if you take the main character’s plight too seriously, you’ll be lost. The film opens with a quotation about receiving the events of life lightly…yet in the body of the picture the Coens seem to be saying, in their own, distinctive way: life’s a bitch, then you die.
I value their eye for detail, especially in a period piece such as this, and their canny gift for casting just the right faces—be they famous or not—in every role, large and small. One could posit that any film with those qualities that provokes thought and discussion, as this one does, has value. True enough. So why does A Serious Man leave me confused and vaguely dissatisfied? Perhaps I am looking for resolution, like the poor schlemiel onscreen. Seems like I’m out of luck.
At the other end of the spectrum is Zombieland, directed with verve by first-time feature filmmaker Ruben Fleischer from a script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. It has no hidden agendas or messages to impart; it’s just a goof on zombie movies set in the very-near future when only a handful of survivors remain untouched by the virus that has turned everyone in the U.S.A. into flesh-eating monsters. The film speaks to a contemporary audience because it has attitude, and a well-chosen cast, led by Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, and in a lightly amusing cameo, Bill Murray. I had a good-enough time watching it, but at a certain point my enthusiasm waned; I guess I wanted something more. But as escapism goes these days, it’s not bad.