A black comedy drama centered on Larry Gopnik, a Midwestern professor who watches his life unravel through multiple sudden incidents. Though seeking for meaning and answers he seems to stay stalled.
Larry Gopnik is a serious man. And God damn is he hilarious.
A Serious man marks the Coen Brothers’ return, after the so-so star spangled affair that was Burn After Reading, to a more Fargo-esque approach to film making, and one that gets back in touch with their own youth (which, it seems, must have been a rather Jewish, pot-fuelled period indeed). What’s more, it is possibly one of the pair’s more head scratching turn outs, not least due to the Yiddish terminology that is scattered throughout most of the dialogue.
This is no more apparent than in the first scene of the film in which we find ourselves watching a couple in a Shtetl (typically a small town with a large Jewish population in pre-Holocaust Central and Eastern Europe, thank you Wikipedia) worryingly discussing, completely in yiddish, the man the husband has invited home; a man the wife knows to be dead. We discover that this makes the man a dybbuk (a malevolent spirit in human form) and thus the wife decides to calmly stab him in the chest. The man, even more calmly, walks out feeling he has overstayed his welcome. ‘Good riddance to evil’ utters the wife. Right then, so far so bewildering.
With this opening scene and the curious opening title card of ‘receive with simplicity everything that happens to you’ (quote: Rashi, apparently), by the time the 60s music kicks in and we are met with Larry on the doctor’s table and his son in Hebrew school, we can be sure we are in Coen land and that, despite Rashi’s suggestion, things aren’t going to be all that simple.
Larry, a university physics professor, leads a stand up life: a father of two and a devoted husband with the possibility of being granted tenure. From the moment we see him leave the doctors room, apparently in good health, it all starts to unravel. A Korean student tries to bribe him into changing his grade; his wife tells him she is leaving him for the buffoon-like Sy Ableman; his pain in the neck brother (brilliantly literalised through his having to drain the pus from a cyst in his neck) keeps getting into trouble with the police; his son keeps misbehaving (and unbeknown to Larry is smoking a lot of marijuana) and his daughter cares about nothing but washing her hair.
Larry takes to all this with god like stoicism and bravely trudges on, turning to his faith; trusting the wisdom of the Rabbi to see him through the difficult period. The problem is that each Rabbi Larry encounters is more useless than the last (the first ‘junior Rabbi’ seems to get lost within his own use of the car park outside his office as a metaphor for the possibilities of life). This is one the film’s central themes; the conflict between faith and rationality. Larry’s faith is tested incessantly, his faith letting him down when he has only ever tried to be a ‘serious man’.
In true Coen brothers fashion, however, there’s a lot more to be accounted for. Danny, Larry’s son, has his own coming-of-age story which could happily have been made into its own film, I’m sure. His troubles, other than the usual boyhood dramas and his pot obsession, revolve around his search for his walkman which holds inside it 20 dollars which he owes to a rather large, aggressive classmate. What’s more, his bar mitzvah is fast approaching, an event that binds the film together and sets the date, if you like, by which Larry must set his affairs straight. The film brings together a mid-life crisis, both of faith and life, with a coming of age story, and just to mix it up a bit there’s a little bit of quasi-existential mathematical nonsense thrown in courtesy of Uncle Arthur’s wondrous Mentaculus (don’t worry about it) which, rather than adding anything particularly profound, simply adds to the films brilliant sense of confusion and the er…unknowableness of life. Sound good? Well, honestly, it really is.
Throughout all this one man remains a constant, slowly deteriorating amongst the chaos. Michael Stuhlbarg is superb as Larry Gopnik. He is subtle but hugely comic in his deer-caught-in-the-head-lights reaction to the ever amounting troubles. Unlike Burn After Reading the Coens have, thankfully, gone with a relatively unknown cast, the main role being played by a theatre actor with one untitled part in a Hollywood film to his name, and it is all the better for it. They have gathered group of actors that are as hilarious in their smallest gestures and expressions as they are in their most ludicrous comedy moments. And yes, the Coens have gone to town on their Jewish upbringing in this film.
Clearly a film that owes much to the Coens youth (and being shot just down the road from their hometown in Minnesota), A Serious Man is a return to their finest. Structurally brilliant, the film ties in Danny’s search with his bar mitzvah (a genius marijuana hazed affair that begs the question of what Joel and Ethan’s bar mitzvahs were like) and Larry’s faith and hope. The final scene is a breathtaking moment which could well be one of the best final scenes you’ll see all year. And, damn those brothers, it will leave you wondering all over again.