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A SERIOUS MAN of a certain age

Last week I happened to see the Coen brothers’ A SERIOUS MAN and the new TNT show “Men of a Certain Age” on the very same night. The two couldn’t be more different in execution: in the Coens’ film, a flat-out signature style-fest, a rock-solid universe where nary a prop is askew, every single frame feeling conceived, composed, rehearsed, like clockwork, like buttah. “Men of a Certain Age” aims for a loose, realist, doc style in both camera technique and performance, and off-the-cuff dialogue and swish pans make it feel less like traditional TV coverage. Lurking not far beneath the surface, however, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the two in terms of theme — two properties on the entertainment market at one moment in the zeitgeist, dealing with middle-aged men in crisis.

But not just any kind of crisis … this ain’t no AMERICAN BEAUTY carpe diem woulda-coulda-shoulda crap. In the Coens’ piece, more so than in “Men” but still present in both, is a desire to engage with serious existential questions of being.

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In A SERIOUS MAN, this is expressed directly through plot and dialogue, in Larry Gopnik’s quest to understand life’s unpredictable misfortunes in the context of God’s plan. My husband, who just turned 40 and is ripe for some early-middle-age-reflection, said on Facebook, “The way the film locates itself in this liminal space between Hashem’s purposeful plan and the random sadness and joy of being just really struck me as hysterical and moving. Do people really suffer or is suffering just a sign of one’s inability to understand what Hashem is trying to say?” This encapsulates the conflict beautifully. And the Coens craft wonderful scenarios to explore this question – from the escalation of just about the worst series of events ever to an illustrative monologue from a rabbi involving Goys, their teeth, and messages from God. On the teeth. See it.

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“Men of a Certain Age” is less blatant on the big questions, but they’re there. And … only episodes 1 and 2 have aired, so I have a feeling there’s more to come. In episode 1, Joe, played by Ray Romano, has a moral crisis involving road kill that leads him to behave in a way later that one simply would not expect. And there’s a moment outside of the party store he owns wherein a man-sized balloon flaps in the wind just a little too bizarrely to be considered simply for what it is. Joe stares at it – it’s not quite ‘the swirling plastic bag’ from aforementioned AMERICAN BEAUTY, but something even more subtle, more moving, almost, without the sentiment of commentary. Joe’s in transition – as opposed to Larry’s escalating crisis – in that he’s newly separated from his wife. Both this show and the Coen movie have the protagonist in the dog house – living in a rotten hotel.

The point of this contextualizing? Not much more than offering two works for some of your own compare and contrast. Are you of a certain age? Even better.

View the preview/trailer here:

–AH