A Serious Man
Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen (screenplay)
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, and Sari Lennick
The Brothers Coen set the last three years of the 2000’s on fire. First No Country For Old Men, their new-age western masterpiece adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, wins Best Picture of 2007 at the Academy Awards. Then the next year, fearful of being taken too seriously by the Hollywood elite, they unleash Burn After Reading, a hilarious farce of mass proportions. Now with 2009’s A Serious Man, they put forth comedy so staunchly pitch-black a viewer not accustomed to the Coens may think they have no idea how to tell a joke.
In that assumption, they couldn’t be more wrong. In their screenplay, the Coens have managed to not only write one of the funniest scripts of 2009, but also layered it with philosophical musings and darker thematic elements. All of this is set against the the late 60’s Midwestern Jewish background the Coen brothers grew up in, which many critics think makes the film autobiographical. What I think they are trying to do is just show what it was like, not tell their life story.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is the vessel with which the Coens convey that environment. He is an academic coming up for tenure with a wife (Sari Lennick) who wants to leave him for the more sensitive and passive-aggressive Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), children who only want him to fix the TV, and a social outcast brother (a hilarious Richard Kind) who sleeps on the couch and comes up with formulas to win at gambling. All of these forces crush Larry simultaneously, as well as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed neighbor who is invading the property line in order to build a garage and the other neighbor who teases him by sun-bathing nude. Surrounded on all sides both physically and mentally and desperate for answers, he reaches out to three rabbis.
This is the premise of the film, but with the Coens you know that’s never all you’re getting. They don’t do their typical genre deconstruction here as they’ve done in the past with the gangster film (Miller’s Crossing) or film noir (Fargo). Instead, they take the typical three-act structure of many Hollywood studio films and toy around with it. The first act is a 10-minute parable set pre-World War II and spoken in Yiddish while the second act, where the main character typically does most of his suffering, lasts almost the entire film. By the third act, we aren’t sure if we’ve arrived at the Apocalypse or not.
This extends to the acting. All of the actors in the film are relatively unknown, yet there isn’t a weak point in the performances. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry with raw feeling and hilarious desperation. Saying he gives one of the best performances ever in a Coen Brothers movie is a bold statement. Not here. As his wife, debut actress Sari Lennick gives a hilariously dead-pan performance. Add in Richard Kind, hilarious and heartbreaking as Larry’s loser of a brother, and Fred Melamend as his wife’s overly-friendly lover, and you’ve got a comedic ensemble to die for.
Roger Deakins again returns to the brothers as a cinematographer extraordinaire. The film is shot beautifully, whether it be in a synagogue or a supermarket.
How does this stack up in the larger scheme of the Coens’ films? I’d say it ranks among their better works. While No Country For Old Men is their definitive statement in the new millennium and Fargo still stands as their overall masterpiece, they’ve done something new, entertaining, and thought-provoking with A Serious Man. “When the truth is found to be lies and all the hope within you dies, then what?” asks a Jefferson Airplane-paraphrasing rabbi in the film. The Coen Brothers would most likely respond with “Make movies.”