I'm not sure I can fully expess all the ways I love "A Serious Man," but I'm willing to give it a try.
Every now and then, I see a film that I surrender myself to and yet, when it comes time to write a review, I just stare at the cursor on the blank screen, confounded and unable to find my way into writing about it. "A Serious Man" is a perfect example of one of those movies. It defies any easy attempt to lump it into a genre, it's neither drama nor comedy, and as a narrative, it's damn near a practical joke. It is a film that absolutely fits into their filmography, but it's also a film that feels unlike anything they've made before. I'm tempted to call it a personal film for them, but since I don't know the Coens personally, that would be at best a guess. It feels authentic, though, and despite the low-key deadpan humor that is one of their trademarks, it feels sincere to the point of desperation.
Michael Stuhlbarg stars here as Larry Gopnik, a professor at a small Minnesota university in the late '60s. He lives in a suburban neighborhood with his wife Judith (Sari Lennick), his teenage son Danny (Aaron Wolff), and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus). His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is living with them temporarily, but he doesn't seem particularly motivated to move out. Larry's life is filled with small indignities and frustrations, but when Judith tells him that she thinks it is time for them to divorce, Larry feels blindsided, and it sets off a chain of events that test Larry's ability to withstand sorrows and frustations. The Coen Bros. spin a comic riff on the Job story out of Larry's mounting troubles, and in doing so, they illustrate one of the bleakest world views in any film this year.
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Larry visits three rabbis in hopes of finding some sense of peace or understanding, and in a way, the film is structured like a classic joke, but the punchline here is one of the most oblique that the Coens have ever offered. Yet, despite the way the Coens love to tease narrative expectations with the moments they choose as dramatic climaxes, I think this film is as complete as any conventional put-a-bow-on-it Hollywood ending. It just reaches that conclusion in a way I didn't expect. Simon Helberg, best known as Howard on "The Big Bang Theory," plays the first rabbi, a junior rabbi who speaks to Larry in empty platitudes. George Wyner ("Fletch," "Spaceballs") plays Rabbi Nachtner, who speaks in riddles without answers. Larry feels like he needs to see the temple's oldest member, the revered Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), to finally sort out his problems. He figures Marshak will finally have the wisdom he needs.
I love the way the script chips away at Larry's world, because it offers up all sorts of irritants without giving us easy resolutions for each one. There's a neighbor, Mr. Brandt (Peter Breitmayer) who is constantly working to move his property line onto Larry's property. There's a student named Clive (David Kang) who can't accept an "F" he earned on a mid-term, and whose pleas turn into covert threats and possible bribes. There's Uncle Arthur, played by Richard Kind in full-volume sad-sack mode, who comes across as a lost Crumb brother, obsessed with a mathematical formula and possibly struggling with homosexuality. Above everything else, there's Sy Ableman, played with an oozing smarm by Fred Melamed. Sy is the one who has talked Judith into finally leaving Larry. Sy's been a widow for three years, and he is what the entire community knows as "a serious man." He represents what Judith wants as clearly as Larry represents what she loathes, and that baffles Larry.
The Coens seem to view passivity as the greatest sin a man can commit. There are dark forces stacked against Larry, and his response to those forces is what defines him. It's what defines all of us. I just got a call from my wife, as I was in the middle of writing this review, in which she detailed all the troubles with our family cars that she's been having while I've been here in Austin. It's always something. That's one of the things you learn to accept as an adult. You will always have some adversity to deal with, no matter who you are, no matter how secure you feel. If you do manage to solve something, when you do overcome one problem, you can rest assured your next one will be along soon. That's why I place such a focus on friends and family... knowing that life is hard, why not surround yourself with love and comfort as much as possible? Why not consume as much art, enjoy as many great meals, and indulge as many great conversations as possible? I take the pleasures I can as much as I can, and I am learning to be active about the problems I face, instead of letting them affect and control me. Larry is battered by all the forces at play in his life, and he has no idea how to take control of them, which is exactly why the problems keep multiplying.
Stuhlbarg gives a tremendous central comic performance here, and there's no weak link in the cast. Melamed is amazing, Richard Kind makes the most of his few moments of screen time, and even short scenes involving Fyvush Finkel, Adam Arkin, and Michael Lerner give the actors room to shine. It's a gorgeous film, with Roger Deakins once again creating real visual magic with the Coens. Carter Burwell's score is one of my favorite Coen/Burwell collaborations, and that's saying something.
One of the strangest criticisms I've ever heard was in Toronto, where I kept hearing that the film was "too Jewish." Balderdash. The film is set in a particular community, but so what? That just makes it specific instead of generic. The opening sequence, a ghost story of sorts, would work just as well played out as a zen koan or a Western campfire story, and you could drop a nebbish like Larry into any social circle and he'd still have the same sorts of problems. Don't let that sort of talk make you think this is some dry examination of Judaism. That's not to say that the Jewishness is not intrinsic to the way this story is told... just that it's not an obstacle to anyone else understanding it.
It's a dark, witty, occasionally sad look at the struggle to avoid the storm, and the little ways in which we lose that fight every day.
"A Serious Man" is open now in New York and Los Angeles, and will open wider in the weeks ahead.
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