Bad things happen to good people in Coen brothers movies. That’s just the way it is, for the sake of our amusement and these clever connivers’ aesthetic fun-having and roughhousing. But, in their latest work, the often seriously funny, but more often fable-like A Serious Man, the bad things just keep on coming for poor Larry Gopnik, a nice Minnesotan professor and suburban father and husband who suddenly finds his tidy life unraveling, strand by strand, with no help from a succession of rabbis. In the slow-brewing, craftily staged chaos is much of that familiar, darkly comic yet stylistically sharp Coen-esque charm we’ve come to love.
A Serious Man is, in a way, an unusually self-revealing and nostalgic addition to the Coens’ long, remarkably varied filmography. It takes place in the time and particular place of their youth, growing up Jewish in Minneapolis, where they raised money for their career-launching debut, Blood Simple. Since then, they have created a wildly diverse body of work, but with familiar sensibilities of pushing around characters and fates with wicked glee. Instead of noir this time, they dip into Biblical parable, opening the film with a premonition of a preamble.
Teetering down memory lane, the Coens take great delight in the small things, ushering in pop culture references sure to ring bells in the minds of baby boomers, like TV’s kitschy-fun F Troop, a pesky bill collector from the old scam, Columbia Record Club, and a surprisingly central Jefferson Airplane song. Even more culturally specific, they delve into the reality of being Jewish in America in ways that make this film a specialty item, full of in-jokes and insider references those unfamiliar with the Jewish faith may not catch.
As usual, the Coens rely on those filmmakers who have helped create the feel of their films, especially cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) and the great film composer Carter Burwell, who wriggles seamlessly between the well-placed pre-classic rock songs dropped like nostalgic smart bombs in the film.
Refreshingly, the cast steers clear of the usual Hollywood characters. Comfortingly, the Coen touch is fully intact, like a feel-good formula lined, as expected, with serio-comic narrative landmines.