Joel and Ethan Coen, fresh off their Academy Award winning No Country for Old Men, return to the silver screen to give us what is perhaps their most intriguing film to date. A Serious Man is that movie and man is it seriously good.
A Serious Man centres on one man, Larry Gopnik, a physics lecturer with an incredibly dysfunctional family. His wife is leaving him for his best friend. His son is flunking at school, doing pot and neglecting his faith. His daughter is stealing money from him to finance a nose job. His good for nothing brother has taken up residence on his couch. His neighbour is a gun-toting lunatic. One of his students is trying to bribe and blackmail him at the same time, and his academic superiors are receiving anonymous letters blackening his name. It’s enough to drive anyone to drink. Feeling a lot like the biblical Job, Larry consults with three rabbis to explain why these plagues have been visited upon him.
Michael Stuhlbarg is cast in the lead role as Larry. A relative unknown in the film world Stuhlberg is a Tony award nominated theatre actor. Here he plays the hapless physics professor with aplomb. Never giving in to the events surrounding him, Stuhlberg portrays Larry as a hopeful soul forever looking for the worst to be over. There’s a warmth and emotional anchorage to his character and he is never overwhelmed by the fact that the movie is all about him. That’s not to say that the supporting cast does nothing. Far from it. Fred Melamed, as his best friend and wife’s new lover Sy Ableman, is a revelation. His portrayal of friend and foe to Larry is quite brilliant, offering comfort and understanding while simultaneously depriving him of the woman that he loves. Richard Kind is also quite brilliant as Larry useless brother, a companion in name only and possibly one burden too many for poor Larry.
The Coen brothers have been making movies for 25 years, but this is the first time that they have had characters that examined their Jewish roots. I suppose a certain freedom comes after winning and Oscar and the boys certainly relish that fact. Here again they do their own editing (under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) and work with their regular crew, including legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. This gives the movie a certain familiar look and feel, allowing the brothers to depict the film exactly the way that they wanted to. The moments of serious contemplative musings and throw away comedy are perfectly balanced, and the movies naturalistic sub-urban setting gives a wonderful air of realism to the film. You can actually envision real people populating the surrounding houses, living their own lives, blissfully unaware of the events happening down the street. The Coen’s also bring back long-time collaborator Carter Burwell, who provides some of the most contemplative music of his career in building the score to fit around the songs of Jefferson Airplane. It’s subtle and unintrusive but like everything else here adds to the fabric that makes up the majesty of the movie.
In the end this is perhaps the Coen’s most accessible movie to date. It’s easy cast it as a supposed spirtual sequel to Fargo, but it’s so much more than that. Though it’s a black comedy, and there are some very funny and moving scenes, the movie also has some serious questions about faith and it’s role in modern society. The outlandish character names, the Minnesota setting, and the somewhat strange dream sequences are all very Coenesque, and fans of the brothers work are sure to love it. For everybody just check it out as it’s sure to be mentioned next February when Oscar season comes around. Look many great stories repeat viewing will become essential.
A Serious Man was released November 20th, 2009.