By Isaac Butler
Earlier this week over dinner, I had an argument with a friend about the Coens two most recent "serious" films, A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis. He, somewhat of an expert on the folk scene that forms Davis' milieu, told me that while he found it impressively wrought and exquisitely crafted as a film, he couldn't go for it. Not only for several narrative-level misfires, but for its (mis)use of the folk scene, namely that it borrows all of this world-building authenticity while also intentionally getting much of the actual world compeltely wrong (for more on that argument, see Luc Sante).Ultimately, to him, it felt like an empty exercise, a portrait of stuckness that doesn't really do anything beyond, well, getting stuck.
This was not my experience of the film at all. In fact, while I go back and forth on it, Inside Llewyn Davis is certainly one of my three favorite post-Lebowski Coen films. But his opinion completely tracks with my experience of A Serious Man, with the Book of Job substituted for early 60s folk music. As I wrote some time ago, A Serious Man head fakes to being some kind of reckoning with divine justice via adapting the Book of Job, but it actually just kinda borrows some trappings from the book and winds up (for me) another minor-key Coen exercise on meaning and life being pointless.
I can't help but think that to some extent expertise had something to do with these differing opinions. As something of a Job obsessive, I've read it close to a dozen times, read several adaptations of it, worked on the stage production of JB, read commentaries on it etc. etc. and so forth. My friend, meanwhile, is a Dylan obsessive who has forgotten more about the Greenwich village folk scene than most people will ever know.
That doesn't make his opinion of Davis more valid than mine, or my opinion of A Serious Man more valid than his, of course. And it doesn't surprise me that the Coen brothers, perhaps the most mischevious major filmmakers working today, like to take these sites of expertise and scholarship and use them in a prankish and subversive way. Nor does it suprise me that at times within their film, prankish subversion is its own end, rather than a means towards something else. But it does help explain to me why A Serious Man enrages me so, and why Inside Llewyn Davis is so divisive amongst experts on the New York folk scene.