The last four or five minutes of Joel and Ethan Coen‘s A Serious Man is one of the all-time greatest finales of 21st Century cinema, hands down. Because it summarizes the basic ethos of the film — “If God doesn’t like you, you’re fucked and that’s that” — and because the approaching tornado storm is so perfectly ominous. The visual effects maestros were Oliver Arnold, Andy Burmeister and Alexandre Cancado of Luma Pictures.
Here’s a brief chat I had with the Coens on 9.13.08, during the Toronto Film Festival.
“Slow Death by Jewish Kiki,” posted on 9.11.09: “Joel and Ethan Coen‘s A Serious Man is a brilliant LQTM black comedy that out-misanthropes Woody Allen by a country mile and positively seethes with contempt for complacent religious culture (in this case ’60s era Minnesota Judaism). I was knocked flat in the best way imaginable and have put it right at the top of my Coen-best list. God, it’s such a pleasure to take in something this acidic and well-scalpeled. The Coens are fearless at this kind of artful diamond-cutting.
“The wickedly funereal tone and lack of stars means it isn’t going to make a dime, but it’s a high-calibre achievement by the most gifted filmmaking brothers of our time, and it absolutely must rank as one of the year’s ten Best Picture nominees when all is said and done. The Academy fudgies will not be permitted to brush this one aside, and if they do there will be torches and pitchforks such as James Whale never imagined at the corner of Wilshire and La Peer.
“The worldview of this maliciously wicked film (which isn’t “no-laugh funny” as much as wicked-bitter-toxic funny, which I personally prize above all other kinds) is black as night, black as a damp and sealed-off cellar. Scene after scene tells us that life is drip-drip torture, betrayal and muted hostility are constants, all manner of bad things (including tornadoes) are just around the corner, your family and neighbors will cluck-cluck as you sink into quicksand, etc.
“This is the stuff that true laughter is made of, and this is a genuinely wonderful film to sit through because of it. It’s so refined and compressed and jewel-cut, so precisely calibrated and cold as nitrogen, and yet hilarious as Hades. Literally. I can’t wait to catch it a second time.
“Only a couple of tough Jewish filmmakers could make a film this despising and contemptuous of their own. And what a way to spur the sales of Jefferson Airplane CDs!
“Set in 1969 or ’71 (to judge by the music), A Serious Man is about a decent but fatally passive and acquiescent college (High school?) physics teacher named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his family, along with his extended family of neighbors, synagogue members, rabbis, attorneys and whatnot who live in St. Louis Park, Minnesota — a suburb of Minneapolis.
“The story is about Gopnik grappling with one horrific threat and misfortune after another. His wife Judith (Sari Wagner Lennick, who looks like Mrs. Shrek minus the green skin) is planning to leave him for a 50ish grotesque named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). The father of a South Korean student looking for a better grade tries to bribe Gopnik and then sue him for defamation when he won’t accept it. His application for tenure appears threatened. His no-account brother Arthur is living on the couch, and is being investigated by police for indecent behavior. There’s a slim and foxy next-door neighbor who sunbathes nude in hetr back yard.
“Every character in this film except for the teenage kids and the next-door nudist is an appalling Jewish grotesque. The grotesques in Mike Leigh’s films have nothing on this bunch. The thought of actually being inside the head and the skin of one of these characters …eewww! In a certain light A Serious Man is almost a kind of companion piece to Todd Browning‘s Freaks, except that Browning’s film is greatly compassionate and caring and A Serious Man is anything but.
“You know what this film philosophically is in a nutshell? That kiki joke I passed along a couple of years ago. The one about two anthropologists captured by cannibals in New Guinea, etc.? Chief to anthropologhists: ‘Death or kiki?’ Anthropologist #1 chooses kiki and is beaten, tortured, whipped, flayed and eaten by crocodiles. The chief asks Anthropologist #2 the same question, and he says, ‘I’m not a brave man so I’ll choose death.’ And the chief goes, ‘Very well, death…but first, kiki!’