The suburban Midwest, 1967. Larry Gopnik’s (Stuhlbarg) wife wants a divorce. Larry Gopnik’s son owes the school bully $20 for a bag of marijuana. Larry Gopnik’s brother, Albert (Kind), is sleeping on the sofa. And Larry Gopnik? He just wants to know how it all went wrong, and what he can do about it...
The Coen brothers are not serious men. From Blood Simple through to Burn After Reading, their movies have always scudded on a strong current of inky comedy. The results are often marvellous, but there have been slip-ups, where things can turn shrilly screwball. It’s when they’re going for out-and-out laughs that you have to be most wary; you could wind up with The Ladykillers rather than Raising Arizona.
So it’s with much satisfaction we can report that A Serious Man is a suburban dysfunctional-family drama-cum-metaphysical mystery. About the clash between rationalism and superstition (or faith). And Bar Mitzvahs. And academic integrity. And death. And teeth. And the inescapability of fate. And Jefferson Airplane. And, to some extent — how far we’ll probably never know, as the Coens, not being serious men, never answer a question straight — Joel and Ethan themselves.
While it feels as if the Coen DNA could, with enough scrutiny, be eventually extracted from A Serious Man, don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a ‘personal’ movie. Larry Gopnik is not their father. Still, Joel has gone as far as to say A Serious Man is “reminiscent” of things that happened to him and his brother as they grew up in their own Midwestern suburb, and we’d put money on one of the film’s stand-out sequences — in which Danny’s (Aaron Wolff) Bar Mitzvah plays out through the red-eyed kid’s marijuana-glazed POV — being rather more than “reminiscent” for one of the siblings.
Even if not properly ‘personal’, the film does stand out as their most human and easy to relate to, enhanced particularly by its approach to casting: it doesn’t star a single star. (The nearest you’ll get is Spin City’s Richard Kind; no distraction here of an A-lister with a bad hairdo...) The lead actor, Michael Stuhlbarg, has hardly ever played a named character on the big screen. Not that you’d guess. He gives the film valuable warmth and grounds it wonderfully as beset physics professor Larry, evidently creaking under the pressure, but never exploding into cartooniness. In one scene, Larry, still trembling from the shock of a car-prang, answers the phone to discover he’s been unknowingly enrolled in a record club. Stuhlbarg measures his reactions perfectly, shifting from confusion (“Santana’s Abraxus?!”), to frustration, to borderline hysteria (“I’ve just been in a terrible accident!”), but while the steam may build, the gasket doesn’t blow. There are parallels with William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, although Larry is no weasel, and isn’t heading down a downward spiral of his own making. In short, he’s not stupid and doesn’t deserve his misfortunes — the same as most people who suddenly find themselves going through hell. The question Larry asks is the same that would be on any of our lips: why is this happening to me? The answer, as you’d expect, is not easily found.
Despite the relatively naturalistic setting (even if it is one of brutally manicured lawns) and non-crime-driven plot, we are still undoubtedly in the Coenverse. They revel in Yiddish argot just as they did ’30s slang in Miller’s Crossing; character names are typically outlandish; dream sequences punctuate the action; and, like Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There before it, it’s fiendishly inscrutable, opening, for example, with a non sequitur vignette set in a 19th century Polish shtetl, and ending on a double-cliffhanger.
No doubt there will be multiple interpretations. Is it the failure of religion to maintain relevance in modern life? How the American nuclear family exploded in the ’60s? The Jewish ‘curse’? You can bet, whatever you think, the Coens would disagree with you. Who cares? Watch, puzzle, rewatch and, most importantly, enjoy yet another beautifully constructed and shot Joel and Ethan show. And if we see a more exciting final shot of a movie this year, we’ll eat our yarmulke.
Admirably low-key, deeply compelling and their warmest movie since Fargo.