Joel and Ethan Coen
In recent years, the Coen brothers have been all over the cinematic map. Most notably, they’ve written and directed one of the major cult comedies of the last twenty years with The Big Lebowski, revitalised popular interest in bluegrass music with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and earned an Oscar for best picture with 2007’s No Country For Old Men. The slapstick spy spoof, Burn After Reading, felt like something of a misfire, and it’s become increasingly impossible to pin those wily Coens down.
A Serious Man is another bizarre change of pace for Joel and Ethan Coen, but it’s one that makes sense in a way. It would be easy to accuse the duo of taking an overly autobiographical turn with this one, which centers on a Jewish family in the American Midwest in the late 1960’s, not unlike their own. It would also be easy to write the film off as being overly Jewish in nature, or even stereotypical at that. But the whole thing is played in such classic Coen style that it works to wonderful effect, broadening what could be a hyper-focused look at the Jewish American experience into an overarching, painfully archetypical exploration of the larger issues of love, faith, hardship, and family.
At the center of the action is bemused physics professor Larry Gopnik (played by the superb stage actor, Michael Stuhlbarg, who was nominated for a Tony for his turn in The Pillowman). Things start off well enough for him: his Midwestern suburban family seems in order, despite the minor annoyance of having a Jew-hating neighbor who continually encroaches on the Gopniks’ side of the suburban property line; he’s up for tenure at the university; and his son Danny (a spot on portrait of pot-obsessed adolescent awkwardness, Aaron Wolff) is about to have his bar mitzvah. But a few minutes in, things take a turn and Larry finds himself stuck in the middle of a shitstorm of biblical proportions.
The tenure board begins receiving anonymous letters questioning his character. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces that she’s leaving him for Sy Ableman (a silky smooth, instantly unlikable Fred Melamed), a serious man. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind at his sleaze-ball best) keeps draining the boil on his neck at inappropriate times and doesn’t seem to know when he’s outstayed his welcome. Oh, and F-Troop comes in fuzzy on the family tele, so he’s constantly being asked to go up to the roof to fiddle with the aerial.
Temptations abound (most notably in the form of a nude sunbathing neighbor, played to kinky drugged-out perfection by Amy Landecker), and Larry finds himself living indefinitely at the Jolly Roger motel and questioning his faith. The film’s central question is asked most poignantly by Jefferson Airplane, in the tune that acts as a refrain throughout: “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, don’t you want somebody to love?”
Indeed you do, and so does Larry, but he struggles with morality and responsibility, seeking guidance from his lawyer (a delightfully straight-faced Adam Arkin) and a trio of increasingly unhelpful and out of touch rabbis.
Heavy stuff, to be sure, but the Coens spin this tale brilliantly, allowing each scene to burn slowly, building until the twitchy feeling of impending doom becomes almost palpable. Stuhlbarg turns in an absolutely mesmerising performance as Larry (one that had damn well better earn him an Oscar nomination if the awards still have any credibility left in them), and with each downward turn of circumstances, you feel every hit with him, and you can read the torment clearly on his increasingly worn and tired face.
A Serious Man is a dark comedy – darker, indeed, than a steer’s tookus on a moonless prairie night – and each laugh comes accompanied by a painful grimace. But even when things seem to have gone too far awry, we’re still in the hands of master filmmakers and artful storytellers who care about their characters, who tease subtle nuances from every actor, and never allow things to slip into stereotypical caricature or soulless farce. Each scene oozes with a heavy, almost voyeuristic sense of down-and-out humanity, making the film alternately difficult to watch and impossible to look away from.
In Larry Gopnik, the Coens have given us a classic everyman, and his questions of faith are ones that plague even the most serious among us.