Toronto: Kvelling over the Coen brothers

Can I have been completely wrong about the Coens for more than two decades? Raising Arizona and Barton Fink were my gateway drugs into what I thought was significant cinema; now I cringe at how painfully wacky those movies are. Meanwhile, by the time The Big Lebowski came out, I thought I had smartened up, so I brandished my dislike. Yet that film is so clearly their sweetest: a frog-and-toad story and a masterpiece.

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Now comes A Serious Man, set in Jewish suburban Minnesota in 1967. The drama shows the Coens still keenly attuned to language and banality, almost to the point of caricature. But pinned behind their gorgeous compositions (capturing the woody, ashtray-laden decors of lawyers' offices and synagogues) is a new feeling, a modulation on Fargo's desperation. Finally, I feel that the brothers have written their signature script, about trying to hold it all together amid so much tightly wound phoniness. No matter how aggressively lacquered their style is, it totally works in this case, and beautifully.

The plot is basically one man's breakdown, that of math professor Larry Gopnik (the extraordinary Michael Stuhlbarg, underplaying the character's neuroticism; he'd find Barton Fink a shanda for the goyim). His wife is leaving him for a rotund habitual hugger. Larry's uncertain about his tenure track, a student is blackmailing him, and his neighbor might be a virulent anti-Semite. But compared with the heavy lifting of something like American Beauty, A Serious Man fills its running time with smartly observed smaller details that might amount to nothing: half-cognizant rituals, the sonorous croons of cantors and the misadventures of a stoned bar mitzvah boy.

It's not Neil Simon--esque nostalgia, but rather a dark satire on the idea of living an upright life. Larry, in his increasing panic, consults several rabbis whose wisdom is questionable. The parables they tell him go nowhere; one of them, magnificently spun to a Jimi Hendrix jam, might be the Coens' finest sequence, period. I have a line of dialogue stuck in my head, too good to overexplain with context: "Accept the mystery." It's the wisest thing the Coens have written, and I'm wondering if I finally need to accept that they've become profound.

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