TIFF 09: "A Serious Man" (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, USA)

Daniel Kasman

The Coen brothers may command the best line of the Toronto Film Festival—“Accept the mystery”—but just like von Trier’s faux-infamous “chaos reigns” in Antichrist, the Coens’ utterance is purely fraudulent.  The only difference is that von Trier knows it’s a joke and A Serious Man takes itself, well, you know.

No filmmakers could be less mysterious, but at first we must give the brothers’ new film some benefit of the doubt.  Its focus on the Jewish community of a small town in Minnesota in the 1960s and population mostly cast from unknowns indeed makes one wonder if the notoriously misanthropic auteurs are up to something new.  For a duo that naturally trends towards looking down on everyone like Coens live outside human society, such a setting indeed suggests a self-conscious portrait of outsiders, viewed outside in, as it were.  But the diagrammatic tendency of these master craftsmen undercuts any hope at “mystery;” those strange unsolved abstractions of No Country for Old Men, produced from the tension between the filmmakers and the Cormac McCarthy novel they were adapting, has evaporated.  Like their partner in crime in Toronto’s Cinema of Clockwork Small Towns Created By Misanthropes—Michael Haneke with White Ribbon—this is a cinema of such precise predetermination that the movies are in essence over before you even sit down to watch them.

This tale of a humble college professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who begins to question the point of it all when his wife up and leaves him is as mathematically tuned to illustrate the filmmakers’ point as Haneke’s Funny Games, another exercise in utterly brilliant cinematic prowess for a purpose that eventually dawns on one as utterly without point.  The film begins with a fairy tale allegory on perception and the meaning of life before starting the Minnesota story proper, but the story proper introduces not a single idea beyond this initial allegory.  The replete slovenliness of contemporary American cinematic craft of course paints the storyboarded precision of something like A Serious Man as true art, but as a film it is as plastic and inert as Fincher’s Benjamin Button, which shares its sense of pristine calibration for storybook morality: sit down while I tell you a tale about humanity without an inch of humanity in it.

That is not to say A Serious Man is not supremely entertaining, very funny, or strikingly composed—like Haneke, the Coens sure know how to make movies—but the expressive element of the movie is entirely missing.  All these qualities add up to nothing and fail to exist themselves as the wonderful details that populate a living cinematic world.  They are the dead things carefully arranged to suggest art and profundity, couched, as always, in the Coens’ utter superiority to whatever it is they are filming.  It is the most ridiculous kind of baiting and flattery for an audience—to make them feel masters of the world, better than and smirking at that which comes before them.  So I wonder, by the end, “what mystery am I supposed to be accepting?”

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