When the closing credits began to roll at the end of Joel and Ethan Coen's new film A Serious Man, nobody at the press screening moved. The end comes at a rather surprising moment, when a lot of things are happening, and we all found it necessary to sit there for a moment and process everything. One colleague and I talked about the movie over lunch -- and more specifically, we talked about what it means when you see a movie and don't understand what it means.

Not that A Serious Man (no spoilers here) is mystifying or hard to follow or anything like that. But it has elements that may not make sense at first glance. It has a prologue, set several decades ago in Eastern Europe, that has no obvious connection to the main story, set in 1967 in Minnesota. There are a few characters and plot threads that don't seem to fit with the others. Overall, it's a very satisfying and engaging film. It just might not all add up at first.

And that's what my friend and I were talking about. My contention is that since this is the Coen Brothers -- a pair of experienced filmmakers with a proven track record -- I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. If some significant aspect of the film seems puzzling, I'll assume it's because I've failed to grasp its meaning and not because the Coens have screwed up. I mean, that prologue: It's not like it's there on accident. The Coens put it there for a reason, to support a theme or to enhance an idea. Now it befalls me to figure out what that reason was.


Now, we can talk about whether the filmmakers ought to have done a better job of making their points. That's a valid concern. You don't want a movie that's obvious and spoon-feeds everything to you, but you don't want something obtuse and impenetrable, either. My rule of thumb has always been that if a second viewing is required to even understand what's going on in a movie, then the filmmaker hasn't told his story very well. But if you can understand it on a single viewing and the second viewing merely expands on that understanding, then that's OK. In fact, that's terrific. We love movies that are deep enough to reward multiple viewings. And that's generally been my experience with the Coens, particularly with No Country for Old Men, which I liked the first time but didn't feel everything "click" until I saw it a second time.

But there are plenty of filmmakers that I wouldn't give the benefit of the doubt to. I've seen plenty of movies where I thought, "Well, that doesn't make sense. These people are idiots." Sometimes you can tell what they were trying to do, and they simply failed at it; sometimes you're not even sure what they had in mind. It's fair to think, "OK, why is this in the movie? What were they thinking?" -- but you can't always assume it's your fault for not getting it. Sometimes you have to accept that yeah, these people really just didn't know what they were doing (or there was studio interference that forced something incongruous into the story, or someone's contract stipulated that this scene needed to stay even though it was wrong, etc., etc.).

So when you see a movie with elements that don't seem to add up, what do you do? Does it depend on who made the movie? Do you give it any additional thought? Do you figure that if it didn't work for you, that's it, no need to waste any more time with it? Do you blame the film? Do you ever think: Wow. This movie is smarter than I am?