Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Alan Mandell
At the end of Love and Death (1975) Woody Allen concludes that if God exists, while he may not be evil, he could be termed an underachiever. The Coen Brothers seem less inclined to let the Old Boy off so lightly in their very dark comedy A Serious Man—a work that searches for meaning in a life seemingly devoid of meaning, except for the possibility that God (or “Hashem” as he’s called in the Jewish faith) doesn’t like the life. The life in question belongs to Larry Gopnick (stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg), and the film charts what can only be called his descent into an increasingly mystifying personal hell.
A Serious Man offers the appearance of being drawn from the Coens’ own childhood. It’s set in suburban Minneapolis in 1967 and is awash in the details of that period. Is it autobiographical? Seemingly it isn’t in any specific way, but the film is more interested in posing questions than answering them, so even if it were autobiographical, I doubt the Coens would tell us. Let’s just say that this 1967 modern-day variant on the Book of Job is informed by their childhood, and leave it at that. And while the film is very specifically Jewish, there’s a universal quality to it all in its depiction of the time in which the story takes place.
Starting with a strange, possibly connected prologue set in a shtetl where a man (Allen Lewis Rickman) inadvertently invites what may or may not be a dybbuk (Fyvush Finkel) into his home, thereby possibly ensuring the doom of his wife (Yelena Schmulenson) and himself—the film then moves to Larry Gopnick’s story. We meet Larry in his seemingly normal life. He has a job as a physics professor, a wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), two kids, Danny (Aaron Wolff) and Sarah (Jessica McManus), and a bland house in suburbia—right down to the screen door with the family initial festooning its aluminum frame. Everything is as standard and as tacky as 1967 could be. Only nothing is right.
Larry’s wife is leaving him for another man, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), and wants Larry to move into the Jolly Roger Motel. Tenure at his job is threatened by anonymous letters. His son is a pothead who has signed up with the Columbia House Record Club under his father’s name and runs up a bill (this is so 1967). His daughter steals money for a nose job. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has moved in and seems disinclined to leave—even if it means staying at the Jolly Roger. To make matters worse, Sy Ableman wants to be friends with him, the woman next door wants to have sex with him, and the neighbor on the other side of his house are anti-Semitic rednecks. Oh, yes, there’s also a failed Korean student who is trying to both bribe him for a better grade and destroy him at the same time.
Not surprisingly, Larry goes to his spiritual leaders seeking some kind of answer as to why all this is happening to him and what it means. This proves of no value whatsoever. There’s no profundity to be found there and even less comfort. The most profound thing in the film—and it’s hardly comforting—comes in the form of rock lyrics. It is significant that these lyrics appear several times in the film, but Larry never hears them (except maybe in a dream). Where is all this leading? Well, mostly it leads to ever-bleaker comedy and the posing of more questions of the sort that are good for discussion long after the movie is over—and none of which should really be addressed until you see the film.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about A Serious Man stems from its sense of being a personal work—to an almost alarming degree. It’s one thing that the Coens have made the film for no other reason than because they wanted to—and they’ve done so because they could. It’s something else again that they’ve ended up with a movie that doesn’t court your favor. In short, A Serious Man simply doesn’t care whether or not you like it—and a lot of people won’t like it. (I’m a bit surprised by the number of people who don’t “get” the ending, though.) In part, I think that’s exactly why I do like it: The “take it or leave it” attitude is refreshing. Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.