A Serious Man ****
Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen.
Written By: Joel & Ethan Coen.
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg (Larry Gopnik), Richard Kind (Uncle Arthur), Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman), Sari Lennick (Judith Gopnik), Adam Arkin (Don Milgram), George Wyner (Rabbi Nachtner), Simon Helberg (Rabbai Scott Ginzler), Fyvush Finkel (Reb Groshkover), Katherine Borowitz (Mimi Nudell), Peter Breitmayer (Gar Brandt), Amy Landecker (Mrs. Samsky), Steve Park (Mr. Park), Allen Lewis Rickman (Velvel), Raye Birk (Dr. Shapiro).
A Serious Man maybe the most personal film yet from the Coen brothers. Set in 1967 Minnesota, in the Jewish community there, the film is about a man, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is being tested like no one since Job. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has informed him that she wants to get a divorce, so she can marry Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), their New Age philosophy spouting friend. His daughter spends all of her time washing her hair, and stealing money from his wallet. His son is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, but spends most of his time listening to his radio, and getting high. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on their couch, and spends all of his time either draining his cyst in their bathroom, or coming up with elaborate, mathematical ways to cheat at cards. At his work as a Physics Professor, he is up for tenure, but faces two possible roadblocks. The first, a Korean student who is unhappy with his grade has tried to bribe him. The second is that someone is sending anonymous, derogatory letters to the tenure committee. Then there is his neighbors – one a sort of hunting red neck who looks at him with hatred in his eyes, the other a beautiful, lonely housewife who may be available for Larry. He reaches out to the Rabbis at his synagogue for answers. The first, a young guy, tells him to see God everywhere around him (“I mean, just look at the parking lot Larry!”), the second, a middle aged guy goes on a long, pointless story about a Jewish dentist who finds a spiritual message written in the teeth of a goy. The old, wizened Rabbi, will not even see him. Larry has nowhere else to go, no one he can turn to in his hour of need.
The film documenting Larry’s spiritual crisis is equal doses hilarious, and also kind of tragic. While the Coen brothers are mainly known for their screwball like comedies (like last year’s hilarious Burn After Reading), A Serious Man maybe their most sympathetic film to date. You wince at times during this movies, because Larry is a good man at the heart of a shit storm raining down all around him. He is trying his best to remain faithful and moral throughout the entire movie, and yet every time he seems to pass one moral test, another is thrown directly into his face. He is cursed, for what reason we are not sure of, but perhaps because in the film’s opening prologue his ancestors invited a dybbuk – or wandering spirit – into their home, forever cursing their family.
Larry had no idea that his wife was unhappy, and now not only does she want a divorce, but she wants to marry a man he despises for being so calm and rational. Sy is one of those guys who insults you directly to your face in the most friendly, flattering tone imaginable. Sy wants to sit down with Larry and have a long heartfelt talk about their feelings. How is he supposed to respond where he tells him that the only logical thing to do is for Larry to move into the Jolly Roger motel in town? The tone in which Abelman says this makes it almost impossible to argue with, without feeling like a complete jerk. And what is he supposed to say once Sy is killed in a car accident, and Judith wants Larry to pay for the funeral? Is it moral, or immoral, to fight getting a “get”, a Jewish spiritual divorce from his wife, so she can remarry in the faith? What is his responsibility to his brother who is immature and irresponsible in the extreme? How in the midst of all this chaos, is he supposed to remain a good Jew, and perhaps more importantly, a good man?
The Coens surround poor Larry with a series of outrageous characters that all place demands on Larry – for his time, his money, his expertise, everything he has. Stuhlbarg is absolutely terrific in the lead role. It is a subtle, hilarious and heartbreaking performance for him, an actor I am not sure I have ever seen before. All Larry wants to know is why is why all this is happening to him all at once. As a physics teacher, he deals in certainties. He stands in front of his chalk board filled with equations that prove such things as that a cat can be both alive and dead at the same time. But life isn’t a physics lesson, and there’s no equation that can help Larry sort out his life. Stuhlbarg’s performance is one of those that is so subtlety brilliant that it never wins awards, even when they are the best of the year.
Most of the actors in this movie are like Stuhlbarg in that they are both brilliant, and yet are actors you cannot quite place. You know you’ve seen them before, but have no idea where. The Coens reached out to the Yiddish theater to bring in most of their actors, and while the result certainly will not do them any favors at the box office, it is impossible to imagine a better ensemble cast coming along any time soon. Fred Melamed is perfect as Abelman the type of guy who is so calm and sure of himself, and that everyone seems to love so much, that you just want to punch him in the face. Richard Kind is excellent as Arthur, who really is just a big kid who has no idea how to deal with being an adult. Sari Lennick is great as Larry’s wife, who just keeps adding more and more confusion to poor Larry.
In the past, the Coens have been accused of mocking their characters, something that while I have never agreed with, I at least understood why people feel that way. There is no mocking going in A Serious Man. We immediately like Larry for his opening scene, and throughout the movie, we never lose our sympathy for him. By the end of the movie, when the shit is piled so high he no longer knows what to do, he makes his first decision to do something “immoral”, and the results may end up being catastrophic for him. Poor Larry. The guy never stood a chance.