A Serious Man
Written and Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff
In an age of high profile franchise blockbusters, months in advance it becomes very apparent via very expensive marketing campaigns what the year’s event films are going to be. For me though, it is instead a handful of directors’ names that predetermine who is getting my money and attention. It should be obvious by the fact that I’d even write this that the Coen Brothers are on this list, and it’s wonderful to have such a list when it means you can walk into one of their films relatively cold. It also brings an entirely different set of expectations than you’d give something that has spent months doing everything it can to impress you.
My expectations from the Coens have become numerous — I now demand a higher level of quality. I look forward to a certain kind of dialogue, where side characters repeat each others’ names with condescending derision and yes, may even have catchphrases. They are realistic but ridiculous, lovable but also worthy of being shit upon by each other at any given moment for my entertainment. I expect that the plot will have moments where doing the right thing is punished worse than doing something underhanded. And of course, if Roger Deakins is on board, it will look fantastic. The Coens tick off all these marks with ease here, in a film I would argue is a Coen film for Coen fanboys. Do the Coens have a formula? Sort of, but to use a catchphrase from A Serious Man, they’re also Fuckers. This is their true trademark, and I am happy to say I was fucked with more than enough times in A Serious Man to get more than I expected.
A Serious Man takes place in the late ’60s (when the Coens would have been coming of age), specifically within a suburban Jewish community. A professor named Larry Gopnik (played brilliantly in a reactive performance by Michael Stuhlbarg, who I had never seen in anything else before) faces a number of mundane stresses: relationship issues, a son about to go through his bar mitzvah, apprehension over getting tenure, a property line issue, an unhappy student, an overdue record club bill, and a brother going through a personal (and grossly physical) crisis. Gopnik tries to cope with these issues by consulting a progressively aged triad of rabbis who may or may not be doing him many favors. While this may seem dry, the Coens’ sense of character and dialogue make A Serious Man very darkly funny. It is also extremely bleak though, perhaps devastating for some, as it basically retells the book of Job through the Coens’ twisted lenses, shitting all over Gopnik at every opportunity. This is a screwball tragedy, made all the worse by unleashing this hell upon a very sympathetic character.
The religious framing keeps the film moving along at a strong pace. Gopnik’s Dante Hicks-ish cry of “I didn’t do anything!” summarizes much of his plight as he tries to find an answer about what he can do for others – or for God so he will stop the onslaught. By the end, the point is made pretty clear: God can do whatever he wants. He has the power in the relationship, you don’t. In dealing with one specific problem he is encouraged to “accept the mystery”, and his failure to do so may be his undoing. His search leads him to a series of rabbis; one (fantastically hinted at by the wonderful shot which cuts “Rabbi” off his nameplate) young and hard to take seriously, another who spins detailed yarns that don’t really point to anywhere, and one which is too busy for his most needy follower. The story the second rabbi tells may be my favorite moment of the entire film; its specific choice of soundtrack and the way it is told reminded me very much of how Quentin Tarantino has his characters tell stories.
Like most Coen movies, there is quite a bit that comes across as silly, and it is clearly by design. Many have often said the Coens take too much glee in the horrors their characters go through, and none of them would change their mind after seeing A Serious Man. Some characters are not much more than caricatures, possibly even less, who exist to annoy and make the protagonist’s life all the more worth letting go of. But others take these restrictions and just run with them. Fred Melamed is particularly great as Sy, who is deceptively casual in his dealings with Gopnik’s wife. Also good is Aaron Wolff, Gopnik’s son, who has his own mundane problems involving twenty dollars, a radio, and F-Troop. Richard Kind is utterly pitiable as Larry’s brother, a mathematical genius who has even less to be happy about in life. This ensemble cast may overall be less recognizable than any of the Coens’ casts to date. Fyvesh Finkel may be the most well known actor, who appears in a strange preamble to the film as a possible ghost (the nature of whom is still a mystery even through the credits). The point of this initial scene isn’t crystal clear to me, but until proven wrong I prefer to think it suggests a curse has been following Gopnik’s family, which would now include his son, for generations.
Roger Deakins’ photography work is a treat once again, subtle compared to some of his recent work because most of A Serious Man is happening inside and just outside of very ordinary track houses. He still manages to capture great shots including an elderly rabbi’s study and a view from the ceiling of the Jewish temple. It made me want to rewatch Doubt and look if he is repurposing any of his ideas from that film.
I don’t know if A Serious Man is for everyone, but for my tastes it is a perfect film. I immediately knew after seeing it that it was my favorite film of the year to date — even more so after a second viewing. The only thing I don’t like about A Serious Man is that it has to move so many of my other favorite Coen films down a notch in my overall ranking of their filmography. The Fuckers. – Goon