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Drifting Out of Focus

Drifting Out of Focus (photo)

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Joel and Ethan Coen have an almost chronic aversion to being taken seriously. Their darkest movies are nevertheless laced with black humor, and in interviews, they tend to rebuff the idea that their work is about anything other than what appears on the surface. Even to the actors who have worked with them, their intentions are frequently opaque. One need only glance at “Barton Fink”‘s withering portrait of an Odets-ian playwright nattering on about his designs for proletarian theater to see what the Coens think of artists who advertise their themes.

The title of “A Serious Man,” then, can only be ironic — and indeed, the Coens make it nearly impossible to take anyone in the film seriously. Their unlucky protagonist, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), is an affable bumbler on whom misfortunes rain like in an unceasing torrent. In short order, he’s asked for a divorce, threatened by the father of a student who attempted to bribe him and informed that his impending tenure at the university has been jeopardized by a series of anonymous defamatory letters. There are minor indignities as well: the fact that that his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) only shows any interest in his father when he needs better reception on “F Troop,” and the nagging calls from the Columbia Record Club, which arrive with such persistence that they begin to feel vaguely sinister.

Unable to fathom why this succession of woes should befall him, Larry turns to his rabbi, or rather, a series of them, gradually working his way up to the elusive Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), a decrepit specimen who will soon be presiding over Danny’s bar mitzvah. The first (Simon Helberg) offers vague analogies which somehow involve an empty parking lot; the second (George Wyner) a breezy, long-winded tale he calls “The Story of the Goy’s Teeth.” Like the movie’s Yiddish-language prologue, in which a woman in a dank shtetl shack murders a stranger she takes to be a shape-changing dybbuk, thereby bringing a curse down on her (and presumably Larry’s) family, the rabbi’s parable hints at deeper significance without actually divulging it. It might mean something, or it might not.

The Coens play the same game, on a larger scale, with “A Serious Man.” A stylized, slow-speed farce, the movie is frequently absurd and occasionally silly, but it also touches on profound moral and spiritual quandaries, the kinds of things the Coens would never be caught dead addressing directly. Only in retrospect do key lines extricate themselves from the innocuous interactions in which they’ve been hidden: Larry’s warning to a student, “Actions have consequences, and not just in physics”; his insistence to the record-club rep that “I didn’t do anything” when he protests having ordering Santana’s “Abraxas”; the father who employs contradictory tactics to muscle Larry into changing his son’s grade, and then counsels him to “accept the mystery.”

09302009_SeriousMan5.jpgAlthough it’s nowhere near as foreboding as “No Country for Old Men,” “A Serious Man” is just as bleak. Larry, who seems to have lived an exemplary moral life (if also a particularly dull one), looks to the heavens for guidance and finds only gathering clouds. He turns his power of logic on his own situation, to no avail. (His wastrel brother, played by Richard Kind, goes even further, spending his days on an illegible scrawl called the Mentaculus, an equation which will some day make the world’s probabilities entirely foreseeable.) If actions have consequences, does it follow that you only get what you deserve?

The Coens based “A Serious Man”‘s setting on the Jewish community in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park where they grew up, and although the movie is not in any intelligible way autobiographical, the complexity of its tone and the depth of its humor suggest something that has been gestating for a long time. One can imagine the prepubescent Coens going from Hebrew school to “F Troop” and back again, forging an aesthetic midway between the two. That the movie is cast almost entirely with unfamiliar faces only increases the Coens’ presence. It’s hardly a film à clef, but it’s as close as we’re ever likely to get.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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