Building Characters

‘A Serious Man’ & ‘An Education’

I think it was The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) that made me vow never again to see anything made by the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel. Though their first feature, Blood Simple, was a brilliant specimen of film noir, what critic David Thomson wrote about Hudsucker could be said about too many Coen movies: “the plot ponderous and flimsy, and the people stooges to a dumb comic-book style. A travesty.” I kept breaking my vow, and Fargo made me grateful I did, because it proved to be another marvelous crime story—salted by the brothers’ nihilistic cartooning but not overwhelmed by it. Two years ago, their meticulous (and surprisingly self-effacing) adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men won the Oscar for Best Picture. That book’s corrosive nihilism made the Coen brand look like mere whining. I began to hope they had learned something.

Maybe they have and maybe they haven’t. Burn After Reading depends on more cartooning but contains biting satire, and the elaborate plotting comments on the greed and deviousness of the characters. Now we have A Serious Man, supposedly based on the misfortunes of the Coens’ father, and it’s as close to an all-American version of Kafka as we are likely to get. Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), a college physics teacher, feels his whole life is imploding. His wife not only demands a divorce but insists he move out of the house to make room for her already selected second husband. His brother is a mental case prone to gambling jags and sexual vagaries. One next-door neighbor is a gun-toting (and probably anti-Semitic) militia type, while the other is a “desperate housewife.” A student offers Larry a bribe to rescind a flunking grade, and Larry (improbably) cannot return it immediately—even though he wants to. A panel reviewing his tenure application sends discouraging signals. Two rabbis offer confusing advice, while a third—reputedly possessing answers to all of life’s questions—proves inaccessible.

Though there is a fair amount of gooniness coursing through those situations, the characters aren’t quite cretins but rather vessels brimming with egomania and self-satisfaction. Everybody except Larry seems to have an unshakable agenda. As in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, an insecure protagonist is menaced by figures who are powerful, self-righteous, and malevolent. The reputation of being “a serious man” is enjoyed not by Larry but by Sy Ableman, his wife’s lover. Sy is unctuous and slimy, yet his calm, glib persona makes Larry appear an unserious ditherer. How can our hero achieve “seriousness”? Only by an act of dishonesty and self-betrayal—and the desperation of this solution is at one with the film’s comic bleakness.

Though A Serious Man is better than any of the Coens’ nonthrillers, it doesn’t quite work. Kafka’s paranoiac vision functions admirably in his stylized, phantasmagoric version of Prague, while the Coens’ indictment of a thoroughly unjust universe seems hyperbolic in their realistic recreation of 1960s Minnesota. In everyday America, there’s always a dram of justice (and a lot more injustice) just around the corner. And while Joseph K. and Kafka’s other heroes always struggle to wring some justice out of their troubles, Larry doesn’t do anything but whine and submit (until the very end). Why does he agree to move out of his own house? Why was he surprised by his wife’s demand for a divorce? (Was she so pleasant in earlier days? The fingernails-on-blackboard performance of Sari Lennick makes that seem unlikely.) Why doesn’t he return the student’s bribe immediately or turn it over to his boss, since he’s clearly outraged by it? Eventually his passivity swamps both our sympathy and the dramatic potential in the story.

Finally, I can’t but feel that if you regard the universe as one big absurdity, you better couch that vision in either comedy or tragic despair. Woody Allen, yes. King Lear, yes. The Coen brothers, no.

My sense that the Coen brothers squeeze their characters to fit their bleak view of life was aggravated when I saw An Education. This British film, adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir by the novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) and directed by Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners), lets viewers breathe the lovely air of freedom.

To be sure, the lead character Jenny (a fictionalized stand-in for Ms. Barber) feels anything but free. In fact, she feels so cramped by her shabby-genteel family and the dreariness of 1961 England that when her literature teacher tells her that, in novels, action is character, Jenny proclaims that she has no character because she can take no meaningful action. Yet, throughout the movie, she does act—and thereby reconstitutes her character. Desperate to partake of the richness of life, she yields to the manipulations of a master seducer, the thirty-ish David, a slick, nonviolent criminal making his living through real-estate speculation and assorted cons. Taking her to art auctions (where he lets her do the bidding), to classical concerts, to Paris, David becomes Jenny’s passport to the Great Wide World dreamed of by all intelligent adolescents. Consequently, she becomes a master manipulator, too—of her own parents, who wouldn’t be taken in by David’s blandishments unless Jenny corroborated his lies. (Returning from a supposed trip to meet Oxford academics who will ease her way into the university, she shows her awed parents the autograph of C. S. Lewis that she knows was faked by her lover.) The movie never condones David’s predations or Jenny’s deception, but there is no sense of victimization in this story. A soul is in the making, and, for better or worse, it is Jenny’s to make. Her teacher was right. Action is character.

Anybody who has read Nick Hornby or seen movies adapted from his novels knows that he is the wittiest, most charming moralist imaginable—yet a moralist he remains. He makes us laugh when Jenny—manipulating her father into accepting the Jewish David—calls her seducer “the Wandering Jew,” sending her father Jack into sputtering protests that he’s never been anti-Semitic (and he isn’t). But for all his liberal decency, Jack (Alfred Molina) is so impressed with his daughter’s meeting a celebrity author (C. S. Lewis) that he facilitates her relationship with a man closer to his age than hers. Told that one of Jenny’s former dates, a bashful seventeen-year-old, may someday become a successful writer, Jack ripostes, “Becoming a famous author isn’t the same as knowing one!” We laugh at the way middle-class decencies and snobberies pave the way for the affair, but there is steely moral judgment within Hornby’s comedy (and both the laughs and the pathos are wonderfully abetted by Molina’s shaggily sweet embodiment of Jack).

This is the rare movie in which the script is rather better than the direction. Scherfig, who used to belong to Dogme 95, a minimalist film movement that, among other things, forbade the use of off-screen music, now coasts a little too much on composer Paul Englishby’s soundtrack. The director is also too reliant on the close-up, cutting back and forth from speaking face to speaking face without making much use of backgrounds or movement within the frame.

But those faces! Peter Sarsgaard’s visage—handsome yet somewhat flabby—makes him perfect for the role of David. And his acting brings out the child within the con man, showing us that, though he’s certainly interested in sex, the bedroom isn’t his ultimate goal. He’s creating a fantasy-fulfilling world for the two of them to inhabit, full of great dining and classy entertainment, in which he will be lover and cicerone and always in control.

Carey Mulligan, who plays Jenny, is being touted as the new Audrey Hepburn, and her pixie/princess face may remind you of the star of Roman Holiday. Yet her voice is the real draw. It is the voice of a teenager with a formidable adult inside her waiting, not too patiently, to get out: a rich, knowing, layered voice, capable of expressing love and gratitude for being escorted into a magical world while also expressing a sorrowful apprehension that the magic must soon evaporate. This is a voice that is wise beyond its owner’s years.

Published in the 2009-12-04 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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