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Coens get Serious - and personal

18 November 09 09:23 GMT

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Movie-making brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have gone back to their roots in A Serious Man, a dark comedy set in the suburban Midwest of their youth.

The result is a change of pace from their last two features, Oscar-winning thriller No Country for Old Men and anarchic farce Burn After Reading.

It also seems a more personal work than earlier films like Blood Simple and Fargo, quirky thrillers infused with the Coens' baroque sensibilities.

For all that, the Minneapolis-born siblings are quick to downplay any suggestion that A Serious Man heralds a new maturity in their work.

"God, who knows," sighs Ethan Coen, 52. "We don't really compare movies one to the other - they're all equally juvenile."

Certainly those anticipating the brothers' usual blend of droll humour, offbeat detail and colourful characters will not be disappointed by their latest offering.

Yet this story of a Midwestern physics professor struggling to cope with a quick succession of personal and professional setbacks also has a melancholy strain borne out of its lead character's futile attempts to make sense of the world.

Some may feel disquiet at the apparent glee the Coens take in putting Larry Gopnik, a father of two with an unfaithful wife, a dependent brother and a racist neighbour, through the wringer.

But while the Coens accept that they are intrigued by the notion of a random, Godless universe, they challenge the idea that their outlook is misanthropic.

"It's about a character who's looking for some kind of meaning who's repeatedly stymied in that quest," Ethan explains.

"But that just seemed like the story we were telling, rather than an expression of a larger point-of-view that we have ourselves."

'Slice of life'

The setting of A Serious Man might be unfamiliar to UK audiences, but it is one with which the Coens have a deep affinity.

"Consciously we set out to recreate the community that we grew up in," says Joel, 54. "There are a lot of similarities to our background.

"The characters themselves aren't meant to reflect real people or members of our family, but it is reminiscent of our childhoods."

It was this attention to verisimilitude that inspired the writer-directors to cast a largely unknown actor like New York theatre performer Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry.

"We wanted the movie to feel like a slice of life from that time and immerse the audience in that setting," explains Ethan.

"Putting a familiar face in this suburban Jewish community would not help. One doesn't expect George Clooney to show up there."

For all the film's autobiographical elements, however, Joel refuses to concede there is anything of his relationship with his sibling in that between Larry and his burdensome brother Arthur.

"Jeez, I hope not!" he laughs. "That was a fun part of the story, but it was not reflective of our own experience growing up."

'Cautious'

Having worked closely together for 25 years, one might think the Coens would have valuable advice to impart to budding film-makers.

Again, though, they are quick to demur. "I'm always cautious about that, because when we were starting out it was such a different environment," says Joel.

"It's been so long since we were budding, it's hard to know if any of our experience is relevant to somebody starting out now.

"But it's certainly easier if you can generate your own material, as opposed to being reliant on other people."

It was self-penned works like Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink that established the Coens as leading lights of the US independent cinema scene.

In recent years, though, they have taken to adapting pre-existing properties, like classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers and No Country for Old Men, based on the Cormac McCarthy book.

That trend continues with their next project, True Grit - a new version of the Charles Portis novel that was famously filmed in 1969 with John Wayne.

"I don't know if we've always wanted to make a western, but it's always been interesting," says Joel, who replies in the affirmative when asked if the genre is still relevant.

"It's as relevant as vampire movies and outer space movies. I'm just not sure we could make an outer space movie..."

A Serious Man is released in the UK on 20 November.

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