A Serious Man? You gotta be joking…

A Serious Man? You gotta be joking…


norman lebrecht

November 24, 2009

Grounded in Detroit on a Spirit aircraft with a cockpit problem, I got chatting to my very close row-mates, an academic humanist lawyer and an Orthodox rabbi. Both had the same topic uppermost in mind. They had just seen the Coen Brothers’ movie A Serious Man and were deeply troubled both by its content and by its critical reception.

The film is about a man’s midlife crisis in a mainstream Jewish community in the Midwest, set in 1967 when society was on the cusp of change and institutions were stuck in the past. The hero suffers marital breakdown, workplace stress, debt issues and other commonplaces of the modern era. The rabbis he consults lack the certainties of the East European shtetl from which his ancestors stem and where the film enigmatically begins. He is, in a word, lost.

The film, reviewed as ‘black comedy’, was received by my companions as documentary realism, a situation that felt painfully familiar. ‘Is it good for the Jews?’ fretted the rabbi. ‘Is it good for the rabbis?’ worried the atheist.

I did not read any reviews until after I saw the film, and those I saw split split straight down the middle. Some acclaimed the film as a masterpiece of wit and social observation, others missed the jokes and were bored out of their critical minds. A Serious Man succeeds in dividing serious opinion. They either got it, or they didn’t.

One of the most perceptive reviewers, Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, found a moral and theological dimension in the finale. Chris Tookey in the Daily Mail called the film ultra-sadistic and cynical. A O Scott in the New York Times regarded it as a retelling of the Bibilical Job story. Jonathan Foreman in the Jewish Chronicle repeated the Job parallel while decrying the film for its ‘mercilessly … unattractive’ depiction of Jews.

Where did these responses come from? Let me share a little trade secret. Film critics lead a dark and sheltered existence. Many need to cover 12 or 15 movies a week, most of them teenaged dross. Keeping track is no easy matter.

That’s where the pass notes come in. Entering a review studio, the critic is handed a sheaf of notes, along with a drink and snacks. The notes, detailed and hyperbolic, add deep background to what the critic is about to see on screen. Much of the notes go into the reviews. Every review I have read about A Serious Man refers to the ‘Polish’ stetl scene that opens the film.  Nothing in the film confirm that location. It’s all in the notes.

The best critics, who are also the ones that review the fewest films, form their opinions after digesting the notes. The rest crib like mad and often get trapped in a corridor of doubt between what they read in the notes and what they saw on screen. That’s where perceptions falter, criticism fails and judgement splits to extremes.

A Serious Man is not black comedy. That was just a convenient handle, probably taken from the notes, and pinned to an original and disturbing film for want of a better cliché. The critics who regurgitated that handle were working under pressure. But they were also conspiring in the spiralling destruction of newspaper arts criticism. When a critic repeats information derived from a film studio’s marketing department, the line between free thought and mass propaganda is erased. If film criticism is to survive, it will require tougher criteria.

Like all forms of art commentary, it is now in a critical condition


  • Tim Page says:

    So what did you think, Norman? Personally, I’m with the “masterpiece” group — I haven’t seen such a dark and provocative film in some time and it seems to me to elevate the Coen brothers to a new dimension altogether. That ending!
    It’s always been tough for an original film to find any sort of immediate appreciation. Remember “Providence,” Alain Resnais’s study of a dying writer, portrayed by John Gielgud? Virtually every review in 1977 was scathing. Does anybody doubt that this is a great film in 2009? “Magnolia,” too, was widely misunderstood.
    And yet I don’t know what the answer is. Of course the poor critics are overwhelmed — and will only grow more so as more films are released and more cuts are made in newsrooms. Maybe we will just have to trust that worth will rise, eventually. Imperfect consolation, to be sure, but these are decidedly imperfect times.
    NL replies: Tim, I thought it was a very clever cross-breed of American Beauty with Portnoy’s Complaint. Reading Roth when he came out, I was struck more by the realism than by the humour. Here, too, the Coens avoid Sam Mendes’s cheap laughs and go for the veritable jugular. I found it thought provoking in many aspects, not least in the definition of MOR midwest American Jewry as a work in progress, halfway between the essential opening shtetl and an inchoate, ominous future of untold diversity. Actually, like Resnais, a terrific piece of vérité.
    As for the future of film criticism it has to get back to basics. The whole form is hopelessly compromised by editors who don’t want anyone dissing a film their young readers might like and PRs who play carrot and stick with access. An independent space needs to be invented.

  • Eddie Williamson says:

    My Jewish side loved it as a character study, the Gentile side was alternately anxious for the story to develop and waiting for the next-door neighbor to strip down already. Wouldn’t necessarily rush back to see it, but I would recommend my Jewish and cinephile friends see it ASAP. I saw my extended family, who live in St. Louis, on the screen and it was kinda unsettling!

  • btchakir says:

    My Jewish wife and I (the humanist) thought it was one of the best films we’ve seen this year… and while not a black comedy, it is certainly grey.
    The Coen Brothers interpretations of great classic themes (and I do think the story of Job applies here) has poked its head out before… remember how they reimagined the Odyssey in O Brother Where Art Thou?
    Certainly a new notch on their creativity stick (and, hell, I even liked The Hudsucker Proxy).
    Under The LobsterScope

  • I really enjoyed this article.
    NL replies: Thank you.

  • Chris Tookey says:

    Dear Norman,
    I read your blog, and you have got several points just plain wrong.
    There is nothing misleading about referring to A Serious Man as a “black comedy”. It is black, in that the leading character suffers seemingly undeserved punishment by a nameless God (or fate). It is just as undoubtedly comedy, as there were many laughs generated by the film among the audience of which I was part – and I know a comedy when I sit through one. I have a sense of humour, so I smile or laugh at them.
    The description “Black comedy” may or may not have been in the production notes, as I didn’t read them. I rarely do, unless there is something I want to check up on. I never read the storyline, because I want to review the narrative I see on the screen, not the storyline the director or producers think (or hope) they have made.
    I neither regard A Serious Man as a “masterpiece of wit and social observation”, nor did I miss the jokes. Nor was I bored. I simply found the film cruel and monotonous. I “got it” but I didn’t particularly like it. Like many critics before me, I found the Coens’ attitude detached to the point of cockiness and cynicism. This is a subjective judgment, but is a commonly held view among intelligent reviewers of the Coen brothers’ output. If you go on to my website at http://www.christookey.com, you will see just how prevalent this criticsm of them is.
    Incidentally, I have never before seen them praised for, or accused of, “documentary realism”. They are among the most stylised of modern writer-directors.
    Like A.O.Scott and Jonathan Foreman, I recognised that A Serious Man was a retelling in modern terms of the Job story (“Their fourteenth film is essentially a comically deadpan update of the Old Testament Book of Job”), though I understand that the Coens say this wish to retell the Bible story was unconscious on their part.
    You are misguided in saying that the best critics are those who review the fewest films. Among those who review pretty much every film are or have been Dilys Powell, Philip French, Alexander Walker and (in the USA) Pauline Kael, Stanley Kaufman and John Simon, all of them fine critics in their way. The critics who see fewest films tend to be ones who overpraise because they have not seen enough films to make an informed comparison. Andrew O’Hagan in the Standard, Sukhdev Sandhu in the Telegraph and (before that) Julie Burchill in the Sunday Times are or have been especially guilty of this, and have not been taken very seriously by leading critics because of this.
    Many of the best critics do as I do and don’t read the notes – or read the notes only after they have written their first draft. I’m surprised you don’t know that. I do, but then I actually talk to my fellow critics.
    I seem to remember there was a geographical reference within An Innocent Man that made clear that the prologue was set in present-day Poland, but I (like many other critics) never mentioned the prologue, or where it was set, so you’re quite simply wrong to condemn us all for this (non-)crime. You are also factually inaccurate in saying that every review you read mentioned the Polish connection. Mine didn’t, and you claim to have read that. Not that you seem to have done so with very much care.
    You write of “the spiralling destruction of newspaper arts criticism”. You and I might have points of agreement on that. However, I wish I thought your own arts editorship of the Standard had halted that decline. I rather think it exacerbated it. Will Self is a good writer and I quite like him personally, but he was a terrible film critic – uninformed and over-emphatic. I don’t know for certain that he was appointed by you, but I rather think he was. No doubt you will correct me if I am mistaken.
    In defence of newspaper editors and arts editors in general, the better ones do not interfere with their critics’ opinions, nor lean on them to approve of films. The Daily Mail has always been scrupulous in that regard, I am glad to say. The views that appear in the Daily Mail are my own, and I am happy to stand by them. On the rare occasions when they have been cut to make way for ads, the full versions are available on my website.
    Yours sincerely,
    Chris Tookey

  • Jonathan Foreman says:

    Dear Norman,
    I am pretty sure I wrote that the prologue took place in a Russian shtetl rather than a Polish one (a sensible guess I thought, as Poland was part of the Russian and Prussian empires for all of the 19th century), and for once I didn’t even bother to check out the press notes…
    Do you really believe that ‘the best critics form their opinions after digesting the notes’ — like Chris Tookey I’ve always tried to look at them only after my first draft.
    Having been a critic for a daily paper (the NYPost for 6 years, seeing 10 films a week, and now only reviewing a film every other week for the JC, I think you may be right that reviewing and seeing too many movies may not be good for one’s critical faculties…
    NL replies:
    Dear Jonathan
    It’s not the best critics who form their opinions after digesting the notes, but the over-worked rest. I’m happy to accept that neither you nor Chris Tookey so much as glanced at the sheaf. Nevertheless, a whole range of critics, yourselves included, employed the same few metaphors even when they were neither obvious nor apposite. Job, in the Bible story, loses everything except his life and never weakens in his moral resolve. The hero of A Serious Man faces a series of incomphrehensible setbacks and weakens in the one thing he holds dearest – his professional purity. After that, he faces a death sentence. The parable is less Job than Adam-and-Eve, or Moses at the rock. So why did everyone cite Job?
    all best

  • Huw Belling says:

    Were the reviews a ‘Job’ lot?