Ah, the good old Coens – as gloriously unpredictable as ever. The two of them seems to have somehow split into a three-headed filmic beast – we either get the brilliance of Blood Simple, Fargo, Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men, the total misfires of The Ladykillers or Burn After Reading, or the playful but slight comedies like the Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty or O Brother Where Art Though? A Serious Man belongs in the third category, but that’s good news – Burn After Reading looked like the work of men who had completely run out of ideas.
A lot has been made of the fact this is the Coens’ first outright Jewish film, but don’t panic – I know as much about Jewish culture as I do about Romanian folk music of the 13th century, and still found this hilarious. There are a few Yiddish words but they are repeated so many times – often by Jewish characters who are equally baffled – it becomes obvious what they are. The only religious knowledge you need is the story of Job – a man constantly tempted by Satan and tested by God.
Larry Gopnick (Stuhlbarg) is certainly tested – he’s a maths teacher in a Jewish school in the 1960s but his perfect-looking suburban life is falling apart. His son is in trouble at school for listening to Jefferson Airplane, his daughter is bored and a compulsive hair-washer, his unemployed, lazy brother lives on his couch nursing a disgusting illness, he is bombarded with phone calls from a mail-order music catalogue and someone is writing nasty letters. Then comes the big shock – his wife has fallen for another man, the truly, spectacularly awful Sy (Fred Melamed), and wants a divorce.
Larry’s only release comes when, fixing his TV aerial, he sees his neighbour’s wife sunbathing naked – another religious reference. The first half of the film is genuinely funny, with the Coens back to their old trademark humour. Larry’s brother is constantly in the toilet, bellowing “I’ll be out in a minute”, and there’s a particularly good running joke about a corrupt student trying to bribe his way to better grades. The film then takes a darker turn, but is none the worse for this – Larry constantly insists he has done nothing wrong in his life, so why are all these bad things happening to him? He tries to find the answer from three rabbis, who instead of offering answers, simply thrust him more into the darkness. He gets more satisfaction from teaching the ‘uncertainty principle’ to his baffled maths students.
To hold together a story like this you need a strong central performance, and the Coens have definitely got their man here – Stuhlbarg is spot on. He exudes decency and honesty, making his increasingly desperate plight all the more painful. Even his one outlet of pleasure with the neighbour turns out to be a false dawn, yet he still insists on doing the right thing. His brother’s breakdown is a particularly moving, harrowing moment for a comedy.
This will probably be remembered as the Coens’ first outright "Jewish film" but that’s a red herring – it’s a simple story with real heart and some painfully, powerfully honest moments. You would have to have the patience of Job to forgive them for Burn After Reading, but this is payback time. Now give us another No Country if you can.