The Coen Brothers do Netflix – and rather spectacularly it would appear.
A Serious Man is quietly tumultuous and action-packed; it features infidelity, car crashes, terminal illness, the murder of a rabbi (or maybe a dybbuk), ghosts, theft, a hint at buggery, anti-semitism, terminal illness, fraud and bribery and corruption, an insidious whispering campaign, dysfunctional families, official indifference, corporate greed, there’s even a damn tornado….
But throughout all this drama, Larry Gopnik, a modest, Jewish suburban father struggles – and fails – to find meaning from his increasingly turbulent life. But played by Michael Stuhlbarg, Gopnik is neither a whining victim nor a hapless clown, he’s just you or me but Jewish. Subtly sensitive, wincingly humourous – A Serious Man is the kind of film you always sort of expect when going to a Woody Allen movie, and are always sort of disappointed that he hasn’t delivered.
It’s definitively set in a comfortable-middle class suburban Minnesota in 1967, and considerable attention was clearly paid to finding filming locations that fit the look and feel of the era; apparently the art design is partly based on Brad Zellar’s book Suburban World: The Norling Photographs. The city of Bloomington offered a neighborhood of original-looking suburban rambler homes and a number of period locations were used from the area – including the St.Louis Synagogue.
Incidentally, and in a kind of riffing, lateral thinking kind of way, I came across an interesting Slate article last week, in the aftermath of Rick Sanchez’ anti-semitic jibe at Jon Stewart entitled Do Jews Really Control the Media? The answer, it would seem, is only the fun parts.
With Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers channel Evelyn Waugh.
Gym bunny Chad and grasping Linda discover a cd rom on the floor of the changing rooms at the Hard Bodies Gym in Washington DC. When they realise it may contain highly sensitive CIA information, they proceed to try to flog it to the highest bidder. It’s actually the worthless novelised memoirs of Osborne Cox (Malkovitch), but the greed and misunderstandings set into motion an unstoppable series of tragi-comic events.
Set against the cruel infidelities, the blithe dismissiveness, the amoral ruthlessness, the stupidity, of the Washington DC / Georgetown “intelligence” set, Burn After Reading is by no means the Coen Brother’s best work. But like Waugh, the moment they make you laugh, they also make you gasp with shock and even horror. The innocent die quickly, the noxious escape unscathed. This is not a comfortable film. But it is funny.
Inspite of the strong Maryland / DC locations, Burn After Reading principally filmed in Brooklyn, so that the directors could remain close to their homes and families – another one of the myriad of frustrating influences that affect a of choice of production location, and over which no-one has any say.