A Good 'Man' Is Hard to Find
A Serious Man is certainly "well made" from any number of angles, often literally, since a major raison d'être of the film is to remind us of how eccentric, hard-edged, but unsettlingly articulate a cinematographer Roger Deakins can be. But "hard-edged" doesn't even scratch the surface, and what an implacable, obnoxious, yet weirdly insubstantial surface it is. A Serious Man raises several "interesting questions," more perhaps about the Coens than about its own characters. Moreover, for me, the film furnished a summary case of the brothers underscoring, avoiding, protracting, and cretinizing all the wrong stuff, at tremendous cost to those questions and perspectives the film pretends to animate. It was unrecognizable to me as a human experience, and feels belabored in a heaping handful of ways without ever clarifying why the writer-directors were going to so much trouble, since they don't seem to exorcise any ghosts from their pasts (much less erode the present-day chips on their shoulders) so much as they exaggerate scenarios and bestialize, narcotize, or trivialize their characters until, finally, the protagonist's spiritual quandary entailed much more of an ordeal for me than it seemed to even for him.
But at least it's an interesting failure, and if it didn't bespeak such lurid shortcomings of compassion and point of view, I might grade it higher. Whereas A Single Man just seems badly made, egregiously clichéd in astonishingly dated ways, and incapable of generating a solid idea for why it's even attempting the sensuous, woozy Wongisms that it's so nakedly trying for (without, for my money, coming anywhere close to them). Firth is fine, but hardly the powerhouse we've been hearing about; Mickey Rourke deserves a good cry if A Single Man makes off with this year's Best Actor Oscar, though I suppose Firth has earned some kind of Good Sport award for consenting to the most jaw-droppingly asinine conversation scenes imaginable with Nicholas Hoult, in a hopelessly shallow turn as an admiring student and self-styled Emissary for the Living. (Spoilerish:) If you always enjoyed the dodgy finale of American Beauty, you'll enjoy it even more when you get to watch it again here, especially if you find yourself hoping for just a bit more morbidification of sexuality and desire, and some even more outlandishly misplaced paeans to the status quo and to a mushy, secularized model of human predestination. And this time, the film itself gets to be the killer! All that, plus some of the most risible university pedagogy since Babs nattered on about courtly love (and, later, prime numbers!) in The Mirror Has Two Faces, which is more maladroit and less sophisticated on the whole than A Single Man, but only by an unexpectedly and tragically small margin.