A Serious Man
Up until A Serious Man, I don’t think many would call Ethan and Joel Coen serious men. Looking at Fargo, Burn After Reading, and Raising Arizona, it’s clear the Coens prefer to brandish their wickedly black, and sophisticated humor than make forays into stone-faced dramas. Even last year, when the two adapted Cormac McCarthy’s heavily philosophical masterpiece No Country For Old Men, the film came out darkly sardonic. This makes their latest film so fascinating. Yes, there is still humor, but it’s also heavily meditative and profound.
The cast is largely made up of unknown faces. The protagonist, Larry Gobnik, is played by Michael Stuhlbarg. He’s a Jewish physics professor in the mid-west in 1967. His son is a unambituous pothead, his daughter is mostly absentee, his unemployeed brother is sleeping on his couch (and grossing the family out by constantly draining a cyst on his neck), and his wife has announced she’s leaving him for Sy, a pompous acquaintance. Larry is forced to move into a local motel, just as he is up for tenure, his son is about to have his bar mitzvahs, his goy neighbors are trying to build on his land, and his divorce attorney is expensive. This all is creating tremendous emotional and financial stress. Larry seeks the help of a respected Rabbi, seeking clarity in his confusion, to find out what God is trying to say. Each Rabbi has his own advice to give, but it’s not advice worth anything.
The film begins in a 19th century Polish village, where a famous Jewish anecdote is played out. It doesn’t really seem to belong to the film except to underscore the disillusionment in religion that is quite eloquently illustrated throughout the rest of the film. It’s an odd choice to start out a film with, but here, it really works. The Coen’s penned the original screenplay, and it delivers the biting wit and memorable characters that we’ve come to expect. Larry is the everyman, confused and earnest. It’s easy to invest in his character since he’s so very relatable.
The photography of A Serious Man is confident and distinct thanks to cinematography Roger Deakins (who remarkably worked on Doubt, Revolutionary Road and The Reader in just the past year). A Serious Man is the strongest of the Coens’ rather large body of work, and is one of the finest films so far this year.