Here is David Denby describing the prevailing domestic setting of the Coen Brothers’ new film, A Serious Man:
It’s the suburban nightmare that keeps showing up in ambitious American movies as the banality of evil itself. The low ceilings, the schlocky décor are meant to be of a piece with the endless family bickering and emotional blackmail—satirically enhanced signs of mediocre, soul-punishing middle-class taste, Jewish division.
In the film, the suburban Home and Neighborhood setting is one of several. We also see the academic workplace, both classroom (with a two-story chalkboard) and office of Larry Gopnik. There is also a synagogue, along with a cheap hotel. There is a Hebrew school, offering a twin to Larry’s classroom and another academic office. There are also two brief lakefront scenes and there’s a swimming pool and perhaps others I can’t remember. All are stylized to a dramatic end and all succeed at highlighting, undermining…always conversing with story and characters. They are, as Denby grudgingly admits, “fascinating”.
But look again at the Denby quote, exemplary of his angry and exhausting piece of criticism, and find proof of a major hole in the eminent critic’s understanding of the Coen Brothers’ art.
This film is not a satire.
To be sure, darkness does indeed linger beneath the at once shiny and drab suburban exteriors. Yes, but of course there is darkness lurking within these settings, as in all. The neighborhood is in fact bland. There is an easily outrun bully. The furniture is ugly, or at least orange. There are fences and people pay attention to their lawns. There’s a dead deer with legs twined and midsection bloody on top of a car. But where is the “nightmare”? At what point exactly do the Coens disparage or mock these lawns and houses and sunlight? Might the decor instead serve to create a specific texture to this particular fictional world? Mightn’t the schlock be reasonable and true to even necessary to the film’s effect?
I posit that Denby’s flaw is is mistaking intent. I submit that the Coen brothers aren’t making fun of Jewish Minneapolis any more that they were Brainerd, MN.
Philip Roth’s collection of stories “Goodbye, Columbus,” which tore into the timidity and prohibitions of middle-class American Jewish life, came out in 1959, when Ethan Coen was two and Joel five. The Coens’ laughter is not exactly fresh. Dozens of popular comics in the past half century have worked in the same satiric vein.
That is to say, because of the “distant, dry, and shrivelling” humor Denby prescribes to Coens, they have been preempted by these artists who came long before. While wondering whether we truly need to be reminded of the filmakers’ respected age during a particular moment in history (how old were they when…Mauno Koivisto was elected President of Finland?), we should save some energy to consider whether period films should instead tear into today’s timidity and prohibitions, or any other period’s beside their own. Or perhaps it’s that the Coens shouldn’t write comedy about Jews because Roth already did. Perhaps Denby would rather they instead write like Michael Chabon. It’s difficult to say what he’d rather because of course that is not a critic’s job.
Instead he reminds us that Roth’s early work was often satirical. Indeed, the very damned smart author might easily have created someone like Chad Feldheimer. But the chasm between between early Roth and current Coens is as gaping as that between early and contemporary Roths. Now Roth’s characters, like all major Coens characters, take shape through pastiche rather than parody. They are collections of flaws and obsessions extended to extreme ends. The hyper-extension of certain psychological ticks, as with similarly extended Coen brother settings (the sprawling corporate offices replete with fat chuckling man, the bowling alleys, the small-time gas stations that don’t sell any funny shaped balloons, unless round is funny), are exacted with curiosity and appreciation. And, most importantly, pathos.
So Denby gets it vigorously wrong and writes off as “arbitrary” a narrative as challenging and experimental as any major release this year (this side of Denmark). Far easier, I suppose, than working to understand what the artists in question might have been trying.