Mystery in the making

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.

"We like L.A. fine," Joel says. "But never for a moment have we ever felt like anything but outsiders there."

--

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

Defining dialogue: "You know, for kids."

They're lauded for their writing, but the Coens' favorite scenes -- Dan Hedaya being buried alive in "Blood Simple," the "Miller's Crossing" machine-gun fight set to "Danny Boy" -- are often wordless. In "Hudsucker," they're most proud of the five-minute montage chronicling the invention of the hula hoop, a sequence shot by longtime friend Sam Raimi. It's a perfect scene to give your little ones their first taste of the Coens.

--

Fargo (1996)

Defining dialogue: "There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don't you know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it."

When Police Chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand) offers that lament at the end of "Fargo," she becomes the first in a series of moral Coen characters, serious men (and women) confronting a harsh, unforgiving universe. The brothers have been labeled nihilists -- a charge they mock in "The Big Lebowski" -- but by consistently holding up a mirror to a fractured society, they continue to stake out an unmistakably ethical high ground in their work.

--

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Defining dialogue: "This isn't 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules."

The story comes from "The Big Sleep," the characters from the Coens' longtime friends. And lest you think "A Serious Man" marks their first foray into Judaica, remember John Goodman's Walter, a converted Jew who doesn't bowl on Shabbat and proudly cites Zionist author Theodor Herzl ("If you will it, it is no dream.").

--

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Defining dialogue: "We gotta find some kind of wizard that can change him back."

The Coens based their Depression-era comedy on Homer's "Odyssey," a book they say they've never read. There are also numerous allusions to "The Wizard of Oz," a Coen childhood favorite. Different kind of wizard, though.

--

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Defining dialogue: "Me, I don't talk much. . . . I just cut the hair."

Billy Bob Thornton's passive barber again raises the influence of Cain in the Coens' work. "We always thought that at the Low Library at Columbia University, where the names are chiseled up there above the columns in stone -- Aristotle, Herodotus, Virgil -- that the fourth one should be Cain," Joel said in a 1985 interview.

--

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Defining dialogue: "I've invested five good years in my marriage to Rex and I've nailed his ass fair and square," says Catherine Zeta-Jones' eager-to-be-divorced woman. "Now I'm going to have it stuffed, mounted and have my lady friends come over and throw darts at it."

For a couple of longtime married men, the Coens sure seem to take a dim view of matrimony. They came to "Cruelty" as rewrite men, transforming it into a sublime screwball comedy that, yes, skewers romance, but saves its most biting satire for the soul-deadening materialism endemic to Los Angeles. Money, for the Coens, has always been the root of all evil, and no place offers more fertile ground for avarice to grow than Beverly Hills.

--

The Ladykillers (2004)

Defining dialogue: "Who looks stupid now?"

Like "Cruelty," this was another job-for-hire, written for pal Barry Sonnenfeld to direct. Again, the subject is greed, and again, those who commit the crime aren't the sharpest tools in the shed. Need more of a through line? The Coens used the "Who's stupid now?" line in "Blood Simple," borrowing it from the original 1955 "Ladykillers."

"The criminals in our movies are usually knuckleheads," Joel says. "Their crimes are serious but the characters are kind of amusing. That lets us look at their sins in an amusing way. Amusing to us, at least."

--

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Defining dialogue: "The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure," says Tommy Lee Jones' sheriff. "It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand."

Another serious man, awe-struck in the face of evil.

--

Burn After Reading (2008)

Defining dialogue: In the last lines of the film, J.K. Simmons' CIA superior asks his subordinate: "What did we learn, Palmer?" Reply: "I don't know, sir." Simmons: "I don't . . . know either. I guess we learned not to do it again."

The rumpus over the Coens usually involves what critics see as a heartless misanthropy. After the deeply felt "No Country," it was no surprise they'd return to comedy's darkest fringes. The Coens may not be nihilists, but they know how to make much ado about nothing.

--

calendar@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°