The Coen brothers return to their roots
by Jason Blair
A SERIOUS MAN: Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Cinematography, Roger Deakins. Music, Carter Burwell. Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Richard Kind, Aaron Wollf, Fred Malamed and Alan Arkin. Focus Features, 2009. R. 105 minutes.
|Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man
After the cold eccentricity of Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers return with A Serious Man, a dark comedy about the trials of a Job-like figure beset with problems astonishing in number and variety. The film follows devout Jew and physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) as he grapples with misfortune during the summer of 1967, a transitional season for the country as well as the Gopniks themselves: son Danny (Aaron Wolff) has discovered marijuana on the eve of his bar mitzvah; daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus), when she isn’t stealing from Dad’s wallet, thinks only of washing her hair; Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind) is a terminal houseguest whose sebaceous cyst needs constant attention; and wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is emotionally involved with neighbor Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), arguably the most sanctimonious “other man” ever. When Judith suggests the possibility of divorce to Larry, it tugs a thread that unravels the fabric of his life, setting in motion a profoundly philosophical and often hilarious look at finding the strength to suffer gracefully. Set in the Minneapolis suburbs of their youth, A Serious Man is the most personal Coen brothers film by far and arguably one of the best of their career.
At the advice of a friend, Larry consults a series of rabbis for understanding. It’s a quest Larry begins half-heartedly and with great skepticism, his reluctance only deepening when a “junior” rabbi — the elder rabbi is away on business — suggests Larry seek God in a parking lot. Meanwhile, Larry’s real troubles are proliferating, each encroachment rupturing his once-ordered life and setting him up for humiliations galore.
For example, as his tenure is up for review, he finds a cash gift on his desk, a possible bribe from a Korean student who, when questioned by a mortified Larry, urges him to “accept the mystery” of the situation. At home, Uncle Arthur can’t be pried from the family bathroom, but that’s nothing compared to his increasingly frequent run-ins with the police; meanwhile, Larry’s neighbor annexes part of the Gopnik lawn as his own, as if enacting a suburban version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Larry’s finances, already in trouble, are being sunk into the divorce, while at work he’s being harassed by an agent for the Columbia Records club, a service his son has enrolled them in sub rosa. Eventually, Larry is so fragile that a knock at the door could break him to pieces. So he does what any self-respecting suburbanite would do: He takes to his roof, where he watches his beautiful neighbor sunbathing naked.
The rooftop visit, ostensibly to adjust the TV aerial, is a moment of sublime beauty. Is Larry taking his last breath before a plunge? Or is he regrouping, gathering the strength to press on? As it turns out, things start looking up for him, so to speak. “Do you take advantage of the new freedoms?” his neighbor whispers while producing a joint, at which point Larry’s face wrenches into a mask of bemused delight. Danny’s bar mitzvah is a trope of pure comedy perfection, the son stoned, the parents clueless and the spiritual community immensely pleased with itself. Even achieving tenure begins to seem like a possibility for Larry. Then, out of the blue, the phone rings.
The material in A Serious Man is as mature as it is complicated, a fact that no doubt contributed to casting the Tony-award winning Stuhlbarg as the lead. Stuhlbarg has an uncanny ability to express injustice, fatigue and exasperation without eliciting the same reactions in the audience. I was spellbound by his performance along with those of the actors who portray his family, the balance of whom were cast locally in Minneapolis, a move that gives their scenes an intangible credibility.
A Serious Man occasionally is a little overdone — the film is preceded by a long enactment of a ghost story at a shtetl — and some plot points are simply abandoned, an overconfidence I haven’t seen since The Sopranos was in top form. Roger Deakins, arguably the best cinematographer working today, is again on hand to enhance the Coens’ formalism with elegant simplicity. If there is a more artful closing image this year than the final frame of A Serious Man, I’d like to know about it.
A Serious Man opens Friday, Oct. 30, at the Bijou.