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The Coen brothers: Just accept the mystery

The filmmaking tandem advise you to toss out any thoughts of clear-eyed analysis when it comes to navigating the pitch-black worlds of their canon. But we ignore the advice.

October 04, 2009|Glenn Whipp

The Coen brothers' new movie, "A Serious Man," opens with a piece of advice from medieval French rabbi Rashi: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you."

Fast forward to the film's long-suffering hero, physics professor Larry Gopnik, who would really like to heed those words, but after entering a world of pain and enduring a series of misfortunes that would put Job to shame, Larry needs answers, not proverbs. What did he do to deserve all this? And why does he seem so suddenly alone in a cruel, cruel world?

The Coens' 14th feature certainly has more than its share of autobiographical elements. Joel, 54, and Ethan, 52, were raised in an academic Jewish family in the same Minneapolis suburb where they shot "A Serious Man." The film is set in 1967, a time when Joel and Ethan were in the thick of their Hebrew school education -- which they hated, much like Larry's son who, like the Coens, would rather watch "F-Troop."

"I'm sure they're all wondering: 'Is that all you could think of?' " Ethan Coen says, musing on what their former teachers might make of "A Serious Man."

Richard Kind, the actor playing Larry's mad-genius brother, believes the movie's pitch-black fatalism reflects the brothers' worldview, which prompts the following measured response:

Joel: "That's just what we told Richard."

Ethan: "As a world view -- " and here he pauses, agonizing over the slightest prospect of revelation, "yyyyyyyeaaaaaah. It's an interesting story."

Joel: "I think I even remember saying to Richard, 'Look. This is how I view the world. So don't mess this up.' "

When it comes to the intersection of the Coens' lives and work, they offer their own advice, which to them is every bit as important as anything Rashi might have said. It's found midway through "A Serious Man," when the Korean father of one of Larry's students comes calling. Larry believes the student tried to bribe him, leaving a thick envelope of cash on his desk. The father disputes this and plans to sue Larry for defamation.

Unless, of course, Larry keeps the cash and changes the kid's grade.

Larry, understandably, is confused. How can you sue for defamation if you're copping to the envelope's existence?

The father's advice? "Accept the mystery."

Is that the way the Coens would like people to approach their films?

"Yes! Please!" Joel begs. "We don't engage in a lot of reflection when it comes to our movies -- "

" -- and we'd love it if everyone followed our lead," Ethan adds, chuckling.

But when you immerse yourself in their work, there are certain themes, certain threads that, you know, really tie the room together. And while the Coens might dispute that, calling themselves mere "storytellers," we can't help but think that "A Serious Man" is just the latest example of the brothers' idiosyncratically personal filmmaking.

A look at what they've secretly been trying to tell us:


Blood Simple (1984)

Defining dialogue: "The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don't care if you're the pope of Rome, president of the United States, or even man of the year -- something can always go wrong."

The curtain-raiser and template-setter for what was to come. It's all there -- the worship of the hard-boiled detective fiction of James M. Cain, the presence of Frances McDormand (who'd marry Joel in 1984), the yo-yo-ing between high and low impulses, the serious purposefulness filtered through irony. And that opening line, spoken by M. Emmet Walsh, neatly sums up their latest movie, as well as their initial salvo.


Raising Arizona (1987)

Defining dialogue: "And it seemed real. And it seemed like, well . . . our home. . . . If not Arizona, then a land not too far away, where all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved. . . . I dunno, maybe it was Utah."

The loopiest and most endearing of the Coens' movies and, again, a table-setter for their savage farces. The core idea of taking a baby's sunny face and using it in a different way -- in this case, leaving the infant on a car rooftop and then in the middle of the road -- defines the brothers' creative mind-set of taking the familiar and twisting it to their purposes.


Miller's Crossing (1990)

Defining dialogue: "Nobody knows anybody. Not that well."

"That's where most of our misunderstandings come from," Joel says, referring to Gabriel Byrne's line in their masterful film noir gangster movie. "Of course, most people don't know themselves either."

"That works too," Ethan adds.


Barton Fink (1991)

Defining dialogue: "Daylight is a dream if you've lived with your eyes closed."

New York playwright comes to L.A., checks into the Hotel California, descends into hell. The Coens' retro-surrealist slice of postmodernism has a little something for everyone -- there are nods to William Faulkner and Clifford Odets, "Sullivan's Travels" and "The Shining" -- and was also their first movie set in the movie capital of the world.

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