A black comedy set in 1967 and centered on on Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg), a Midwestern professor who watches his life unravel when his wife prepares to leave him because his inept brother (Kind) won't move out of the house.
For Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who, by all appearances seems to be a decent, loving, and, well, serious man. Life seems merely a curtain raiser to the Hell to come. His wife decides to leave him, his kids could care less, and his job, as a physics professor at a small mid-western college is under threat.
Larry seeks solace in his religion. One rabbi tells him a story about a dentist who discovered 'help me" in Hebrew script carved on the back of a Gentile’s teeth. Larry doesn’t take much solace from this yarn. God knows what it is supposed to mean and He’s not answering.
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen have never provided much in the way of sturdy answers or sweet comfort in their pictures – for their characters or audience. They once rationalised their twisty, event-filled plots as arising from a method where they think of something bad that can happen to a character 'and then make it worse." This narrative strategy has become recognised as one of the keynotes in the Coen style. For some, this basic approach to filmmaking, character and story is ticklish and clever. It's enough that their movies offer a relentless stream of incidental pleasures like note-perfect performances and drop-dead brilliant dialogue"¦ What does it matter that specific quirks of story and plot remain out of reach, unresolved or just plain obscure?
A Serious Man is the Coens' 14th feature and will most likely provide no solace whatsoever to the brother’s critics. For me it is a terrific picture – hilarious and deep, it's about trying to determine what is authentic in life. It’s as strange as Barton Fink, as quietly bleak as The Man Who Wasn’t There and provides a gallery of characters so keyed-into their own tunnel vision-like obsessions they make The Big Lebowski’s goofy ensemble seem positively well-adjusted. In canvassing Larry’s mid-life crisis, A Serious Man offers up the kind of squirm and wince style of comedy the Coens perfected long-ago in Raising Arizona; except here its delivered with the straight-faced sobriety of Fargo. Example: Larry’s wife falls in love with his next door neighbour Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Blessed with a bourbon and honey voice set deep in the bass-register, Sy’s way of coming clean is to act more like a counsellor than a cuckold. On 'confronting' Larry, Sy gives him a big (unwanted and unwarranted) hug. In the Coen universe sentiment is often masked in a role play of easy virtue or political expediency. In other pictures the Coen’s satire seemed a little too glib; here it's devastating and revealing.
Set in their hometown in 1967 in a Jewish community, A Serious Man has been called the Coen’s 'most personal" film (for the un-initiated they grew up, the sons of academics in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis with a large Jewish population) Still, I’m not certain whether that is important. It does not seem to me a film 'about' Jewishness or suburban ennui (which hasn’t stopped critics and pundits complaining that the film is a grotesque explosion of self-loathing). The setting and characters provide details and atmosphere, but the Coens aren’t sociologists and never have been.
The Coens' visual style is as precise, confident and eloquent as ever. There’s no excess. A Serious Man has in its look, brilliantly created by cinematographer Roger Deakins, the hard, 'real’ surface of modern art combined with the slightly twisted truth of a dream.