The statement gives an initial impression of grandeur, but is still somewhat misleading given that the new millennium has seen a median decline in the quality of the Coens' work, if only when compared to their streak of wildly diverse successes during the nineties. 2003 and 2004 also saw the release of their two most styleless films ("Intolerable Cruelty," "The Ladykillers"), which may prompt more cynical readers to regard my proclamation as somewhat hallow. The greatest compliment I can pay the Coen brothers' latest effort may simply be to say that it holds up to their best work. Radically different in setting and character while still embodying an ineffable Coen-ness, "A Serious Man" is truly worthy of the duo's legacy.
Tonally, it bears closest similarity to "Fargo," in that the filmmakers' bizarre humor remains in tact, but is broadcast at a lower decibel than "Burn After Reading," or "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "A Serious Man" is a subtly engaging film, its pacing slow and deliberate, with a series of escalating misfortunes that ratchet up the tension for the Coen's surrogate father, protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), until the apotheosis funnels into one of the most viscerally cinematic and profoundly powerful endings in recent memory. The only thing that comes close is maybe the last five minutes of Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood."
Without spoiling anything, the film is deliberately constructed to leave the interpretation of God, or the manifestation of His will, up to the viewer. Is "A Serious Man" a film about fate, about the futility of religious practice, or about its importance? Plug in either interpretation and it works, and that's just a sliver of the film's brilliance. Religion is really a perfect subject for the Coens, given that the pair has always favored the unresolved and the unexplained in their storytelling. For them, God is the ultimate question mark.
But more importantly, above its philosophical and theological subtext, "A Serious Man" is an entertaining story. More reserved than perhaps any of their films, the Coens still squeeze in their signature hard-edged silliness with a cast of memorable characters and offbeat subplots involving the people in Larry's life: his dope-smoking son, dope-smoking neighbor, live-in brother, estranged wife, and her prospective future husband. Truth be told, the events that transpire are rarely enthralling in the moment, but the further I stand from them, the more complete and satisfying a portrait they form. The final moments are beautiful and haunting, and tie everything together so well with so little that you may not realize how perfect it is until the credits are already rolling.
The Coens have reasserted themselves as incomparable American filmmakers worthy of mention in the same breath as genre-chameleon Billy Wilder. With a relatively dry award season ahead of us, "A Serious Man" is at the top of my list, and though the pair won their first best picture Oscar only two years ago, it suddenly seems rather implausible that they'll be waiting another thirteen years for their next.