"A Serious Man" is a masterpiece. The Coen Brothers top themselves every time!
It's the 1960s, and physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) can't get a break. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants to divorce him, to the seeming indifference of their children Danny (Aaron Wolff) and Sarah (Jessica McManus).
Meanwhile, Larry's brother Arthur (Richard Kind) keeps monopolizing the bathroom, and Larry's tenure committee grapples with charges that he's morally unsuitable. Could one of his accusers be a student who attempted to bribe him for a passing grade?
Perhaps a talk with the most respected rabbi in this Midwestern community would help Larry sort everything out. But the rabbi's secretary claims he's busy.
"He doesn't look busy," Larry protests, to no avail. It's just the latest disappointment for a man whose universe is steadily unraveling.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men"), "A Serious Man" is a comedy of discomfort — and one of their best, most insightful and most provocative films. The final shot, which won't be revealed here, is at once extraordinary and disturbing.
Larry could be the breakthrough role for Stuhlbarg, a respected stage actor who has appeared in films including "The Grey Zone" and "Body of Lies." Not since Woody Allen in his glory days has a screen schlemiel been so endearingly hilarious.
Also turning in splendid performances are Fred Melamed as Judith's condescending boyfriend, and Adam Arkin as Larry's empathetic lawyer.
The question in "A Serious Man," the Coen brothers' latest film, is simple enough, if the details are much more complex. Why does God test us, challenge us, punish us? Is there no relief in this life?
They waste no time in asking the question. Answering it is another story, something they really never get around to. But this is a movie
that delights in posing the big query, in exploring the limits of tolerance and patience.
It's also hilarious.
It's easy to peg "A Serious Man" as the Coen brothers' most personal work to date.
After all, what's the runner-up? "Fargo?" "Blood Simple?" Ethan and Joel Coen specialize in detachment as filmmakers, the more ironic the better. And just because some elements of "A Serious Man" may (or may not) reflect their own experiences - Jewish family life in the suburbs in the '60s, with all the hope, promise and crushing claustrophobia that implies - doesn't mean they've left it behind.
They toy mercilessly with their protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor on the cusp of tenure. From a distance, Larry's life is nondescript, perhaps even pleasant. Up close it's a different story.
There is something about the Jewish way of humor and storytelling I've always found enormously appealing. I memorized material by Henny Youngman and Myron Cohen at an age when, to the best of my knowledge, I had never met a Jew. I liked the rhythm, the contradiction, the use of paradox, the anticlimax, the way word order would be adjusted to back up into a punch line. There seemed to be deep convictions about human nature hidden in gags and one-liners; a sort of rueful shrug. And the stories weren't so much about where they ended as how they got there.
The Coen brothers' new film, "A Serious Man," tells a Jewish story. It is largely about misery and bad luck, and it's very funny. Its hero's first two words must have been oy vey. The Coens, who have a way of following their vision with unwavering consistency, do not flinch from the problems of poor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), which include a wife, son and daughter who cause him misery, a deeply flawed brother-in-law who has taken up residence on the sofa, three rabbis who are no help, and an exhibitionist neighbor who goes heavy on the eye liner and smokes during sex. If you aren't Jewish when you go into this movie, you may be when you come out.
I want to briefly discuss several films I've seen at Toronto his year, so this isn't the time for a full-dress review. But let me praise the brothers, Ethan and Joel, for making no attempt to "mainstream" the story in a misguided attempt to appeal to the goyim. Being specific makes their movie more accessible, not less, because there's some Larry Gopnik in all of us...
The Coen Brothers‘ A Serious Man is very comparable to Alexander Payne’s masterwork Election, which just happens to be one of my favorite films of all time. Both films are brilliant dark comedies about teachers who are trying to do their best, trying to do the right thing, and somewhere along the way, make one small bad decision which spirals out of control into the biggest mess you’ve ever seen.
A Serious Man is set in 1967, and centers on Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) a midwestern professor who is faced with divorce, and all the consequences that may bring to his Jewish family, which includes a son prepping for Bar Mitzvah while evading bullies at school, a daughter, and his crazy gambling brother who keeps getting into more trouble. Larry seeks answers from three local rabbi, none of which are able to give him any advice he believes to be of value. And things only get worse, because they certainly aren't getting any better.
Can I make a confession? I'm not usually a fan of things that are super Jewish. Jewish I like. In fact, Jewish I love! My list of Jewish cultural heroes ranges from Franz Kafka to Bob Dylan to Sarah Silverman, with about a bazillion stops in between. But super-Jewish stories about shtetls and magic-realist rabbis—all that Fiddler on the Roof crap? Meh! I'm Irish American, with my own schmaltzy ancestral pseudohistory to mythologize, feel guilty about, and feel superior for overcoming. Spare me the Nathan Englander routine. I don't need another nightmare to wake up from.
Prejudices are made to be renounced, though. For example, just when I swore I'd never willingly sit through another exigesis of the cultural dislocations of the 60s, Mad Men landed and revived the entire genre for me. (I still refuse to see Taking Woodstock though.) And now along comes A Serious Man, which is as super-Jewish as the Coen brothers are likely ever to get. It’s also seriously awesome.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s Latest, A Serious Man, is a portrait of a period (1967) and place (Minnesota) and milieu (Jewish) that the brothers know very well. They cast it with excellent actors; Richard Kind as pathetic Uncle Arthur and Adam Arkin as a well-heeled lawyer are probably the only recognizable names. The writer-directors start the movie off in a wintry shtetl, evoking the dread spirit the dybbuk hovering over an uneasy marriage. This movie is utterly assured, personal, serious, sad and very funny.