Now that they’ve won tandem Oscars for best picture and director — for 2007’s “No Country for Old Men” — the Coen Brothers are clearly in a new phase of their career. It goes without saying that their post-“Country” films will be looked at in a different way, perhaps discussed with a new level of scrutiny.
While their latest, “A Serious Man,” was written and set up before they made “No Country For Old Men,” it’s fitting that with Hollywood’s highest honors under their belt these two historically media shy American filmmakers are now offering up their most personal movie.
“A Serious Man” is a dark comedy about a physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) grappling with an existential crisis while his entire life unravels around him. Hoping for clarity, he seeks advice from several rabbis with the goal of becoming a better man. The film is set in the mid ’60s in a distinctly Jewish community in suburban Minnesota, exactly where the Coens grew up, at a time when Joel would have been about thirteen and his younger brother Ethan would have been about ten. Sitting for a chat with them in a narrow fifteen minute window recently, I was focused on the personal nature of the movie, reiterating how I found it so rare for them to overtly examine themselves in a film.
“Well, ‘Fargo’ is very much drawn from the place where we grew up,” Joel Coen gently countered. I politely persisted that this one goes much deeper than “Fargo” and then he agreed that “[Fargo] was in a world that we sort of observe but didn’t inhabit much…”
“This one is more,” interrupted Ethan Coen, “It’s not just the geography.” Pausing, he then added, “When it’s about your ethnicity, people take notice more. When the period is from your childhood, I don’t even know if other people notice, but, they get more of a kick out of it.”
It’s now been twenty five years since the Coens made their first feature, “Blood Simple.” It took them a long time to take a closer look at their childhood in a movie, something they couldn’t have done for a few reasons.
“I don’t think we could have made [“A Serious Man”] as a first movie,” Ethan Coen explained. “Early on,” Joel Coen agreed, “Nobody would have given us the opportunity to make this on a reasonable budget.” Not to mention the maturity they needed to be able to look back more confidently. “It’s easier to process that into something meaningful and interesting to you when you get a litle bit older,” Joel then weighed in. “Passing years imbue them with a personal exoticism.”
While many critics have praised the film, (the LA Times’ Kenneth Turan called it “a pitch-perfect comedy of despair that, against some odds, turns out to be one of their most universal as well”), others have countered that this more personal Coen movie reveals a nasty side. “Is ‘A Serious Man’ a work of Jewish self-loathing?” asked the Village Voice’s Ella Taylor. “Hard to tell, if only because—aside from ‘Fargo”s Marge Gunderson, one of the great creations of American cinema—just about every character the Coens create is meant to affirm their own superiority.”
The Coens reiterated that their movie is meant to revolve around one man in crisis, but they also have acknowledged that they enjoyed the opportunity to terrorize the character. They seem to be lashing out at an authority figure with a youthful anger and rebelliousness. It’s a topic that will, no doubt, be explored further as the film continues its run, perhaps right into another awards season.
At its core, though, the film seems rooted in that ethnicity the Coens referred to early in our conversation. They start the film with a disconnected short film, a fictitious Yiddish folk tale involving a dark spirit who visits a Jewish couple, that serves as the entry point for their mid-’60s story. “It does make the statement that ethnicity is important,” Ethan Coen offered, about the prologue. “It’s about Jews.”
“It’s about Jews,” Joel Coen continued, “And it’s also about a certain type of Jewish storytelling. This is an old Jewish folk tale…about a Jewish community.”