A Serious Man, the latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen, is black comedy. It is readily apparent how personal a project this was to the Coen brothers, as the film was heavily influenced by their own upbringing. Gorgeously shot, tightly edited, and packed full of Biblical allusions, this film deserves its spot in the pantheon among the year’s best movies.
The film opens with a very weird and creepy Jewish folk tale set in 19th century Eastern Europe. What this cold opening scene has to do with the rest of the movie is never made explicitly clear, but the stage is set early for the dark comedy that is in store for audiences.
The setting moves to a midwestern town in 1967 (an era and place in which the brothers Coen spent their formative years). Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor at a local college. Again, the parents of Ethan and Joel Coen were both professors, so this is an area where they can draw from a deep well of personal experiences. There is not a distinctly linear plot for most of the movie. Rather, Larry’s life is slowly falling apart around him, with each problem building on the last one. His wife, Judith (played by Sari Lennick), wants a divorce. To make matters worse, she reveals that she is leaving him for his good friend, widower Sy Ableman (played by Fred Melamed). Larry’s unemployed brother, Arthur (played by Richard Kind), is living with his family despite everyone wanting him to move. Arthur is constantly in the bathroom draining a cyst in his neck, much to the chagrin of Larry’s teenage daughter, Sarah (played by Jessica McManus). Sarah has been stealing money from Larry’s wallet to save up for a nose job, and Larry’s son Danny has been stealing money from Sarah to support his marijuana habit. Larry is up for review by the tenure committee, but his situation appears less than ideal. As if he wasn’t dealing with enough already, when he climbs on the roof to adjust the television antenna he sees his attractive neighbor sunbathing nude.
The film follows Larry through this tumultuous period in his life. As the trials facing him become increasingly insurmountable, Larry decides to meet with three different rabbis. Each one of them gives him very different advice on how to achieve that status he covets so much of becoming a serious man.
A featurette called “Becoming Serious” offers nice insight into the vision behind the film. It explains how personal this movie is for the Coens. “Creating 1967” shows how the production was able to faithfully recreate the time period. The filmmakers' attention to detail is admirable. “Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys” defines some of the many Hebrew and Yiddish terms and used in the movie. The special features are good but not outstanding. They are certainly worth a watch but pretty standard fare.
A Serious Man is not for everyone. Slowly paced and dialogue-driven, this movie is fairly galvanizing. I know people who have appreciated it and thoroughly enjoyed all of the religious metaphors, while others have decried it as a complete waste of time. The ending may surprise you, but I encourage giving this movie a watch and deciding for yourself what you think about it.Powered by Sidelines