Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Peter Breitmayer, Sari Lennick, Jessica McManus, Aaron Wolff
RunTime: 1 hr 45 mins
Released By: Shaw
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scene)
Official Website: http://filminfocus.com/focusfeatures/film/a_serious_man
Opening Day: 18 February 2010
A Serious Man is the story of an ordinary man’s search for clarity in a universe where Jefferson Airplane is on the radio and F-Troop is on TV. It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous acquaintances, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry’s unemployable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job.
While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry’s chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person – a mensch – a serious man?
If “No Country for Old Men” was their most pitch-perfect counterpoint of their idiosyncratic cinematic form, then “A Serious Man” is their most personal and exploratory to date. In many ways and especially in its inquiring spirit, “A Serious Man” is the quintessential Coen Brothers film. It resonates with the inherent absurdity of life, the harsh dualities of creation and the great cosmic prank of being. In the film's seemingly disjointed prologue set in Poland and spoken in Yiddish with accompanying subtitles, a man returning home brings home a visitor who might or might not be a dybbuk (a lost soul) to a suspecting wife, which sets the tone for the film's concerns over the danger of unexamined faith.
With their latest film, they look at serious issues faced by serious people. It regards the disintegration of a late 60s Midwestern Jewish family through the experiences of soon-to-be-tenured physics professor Larry Gopnik (exquisitely played by Michael Stuhlbarg), a representation of the Biblical Job. He's a good man by all accounts. Honourable and serious in his convictions, he faces personal tribulations of a cheating wife (Sari Lennick), a traitorous friend (Fred Melamed), a kooky brother (Richard Kind) and two children who steal from him (Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus). Add to that the temptations of a Korean exchange student (David Kang) attempting to bribe him for better grades and a promiscuous pot-smoking neighbour (Amy Landecker) who sunbathes nude. This convergence of sufferings in a short span of time lead him to analyse his perceptions on his Jewish-American faith and to reconcile the idea that man and God might not be on the same path, or whether there ever was a path to begin with.
Evoking the tenor of an Anton Chekhov comic tragedy, the very notion of a tested faith against the backdrop of suburban rituals with the era's onset of American consumerist values on the warpath, is a daunting reminder of our place in the universe. The fatalistic tinge is made even more palpable in the film when considered along with the nihilistic streak set in the Coens' shared consciousness. They weave together fundamental philosophical inquiries of identity, existentialism and morality through a perfect conflation of characters. Larry primarily searches for clarity and answers through three rabbis, who attempt to comfort him with platitudes of God's will, placate him by convincing him of greater plans through droll anecdotes or just plain refuse to see him. The film asks questions through Larry that are not answerable and at its most Coen-ness, the film pleads with us to just “accept the mystery”. What is our place? Where do I go from here? Is God guiding me? At one point Larry asks, “Should I be nicer to people?” The rabbi replies: "It couldn't hurt."
Bookended by its fascinating prologue and a bravura finale, the Coens have once again made a film that is not just a showcase of a technical mastery of their profession, but a film that discusses and digests key humanistic ideals. At its core, “A Serious Man” resembles the primal scream silently emanating from the heart of every man and woman who, in their daily communion of navigating the finer points of compromise in their lives, come face to face with the overwhelming odds that their existence is akin to a piece of rock hurtling through space – random, unknown and searching.
(Funny and tragic, the Coen Brothers' bleakest comedy
Review by Justin Deimen