It’s 1967. Larry Gopnik is a mathematics professor living in an anonymous Midwestern Jewish community. He’s working hard to support his family and his older brother, who’s staying with them indefinitely. There are trials and tribulations, but Larry’s happy with his lot and always tries to do the right thing.

Then, one day, it all starts to change. A disgruntled student tries to bribe him to improve his grade, while his son Danny is listening to Jefferson Airplane and slacking at Hebrew school. His brother Arthur is forever sucking gunk from the sebaceous cyst on his neck, and his wife Judith announces that she wants a divorce so she can start a better life with Sy Ableman. His daughter Sarah’s nicking his cash to fund a nose job, just as money’s getting tight and Danny’s bar mitzvah is looming. Sy Ableman thinks it better that he move into the family home and Larry shift to the local motel and Arthur starts to have a crisis.

Copy picture

On top of this, the university’s receiving anonymous letters falsely accusing him of transgressions and threatening his tenure - and all the while Larry can’t get proper guidance from the rabbis, if at all. As events befuddle and burden Larry, you can visibly see the questions bubbling up from within him. What on earth is happening – and why is it happening to me?

A Serious Man is a fine example of the uniquely offbeat, demonstrative, allusive cinema that only Joel and Ethan Coen can deliver. Their eccentric but credible characters abound, warmly realised by excellent performances that benefit from a superb screenplay. All are filmed with a style and touch that both engenders and resonates with a love of filmmaking. This is pure Coen brother’s class.

Larry’s struggles are webbed with deadpan, dark humour and comical, considered insights. His character may have the richest nap but, while he might increasingly feel a man alone, much of the drollery comes from consorting with his quirky neighbourhood. Lots of people are talking to him, but no one’s really helping him figure out what it all means. There are also a few marvellous laugh-out loud moments. Danny’s bar mitzvah is such an equally reverent and gloriously stoner affair that I simply couldn’t contain myself by the time it had finished.

The Coens have tantalisingly set the film in their own Midwest hometown, with elements of the script reminiscent of their childhoods and drawing on their own early experiences. They play heavily with the idea of identity and place while displaying a perceptive affection for the foibles of the observant Jewish community of their upbringing. I sincerely hope that some of Danny’s exploits are close to their own, if only for the pseudo-interpretive notions they conjure.

The Jewish neuroticism evident here recalls Barton Fink, but A Serious Man has no such stylistic inclinations or hyperbole. It’s far more grounded in the brilliantly re-created reality of its period and place, something deliberately reinforced by the largely unknown cast. Taking point is Michael Stuhlberg as Larry. Part Woody Allen, part Joaquin Phoenix, he is utterly convincing as the ‘put upon man’, as much a Coen feature as Hitchcock’s ‘innocent on the run’. Stuhlberg tenders a superbly balanced performance, conveying palpable exasperation with little more than a look or subtly straining voice. This and his appearance in Cold Souls will surely cement his movie profile.

Being the Coens, there are no easy answers for Larry, or us. His travails are bookended by a hugely differing prologue and ending. The sobering conclusion, with images of a wind-buffeted stars ‘n’ stripes, speaks sombrely of the late Sixties setting. The instantly engrossing prologue, on the other hand, is set a century earlier in rural Poland in a shtetl, or a small village. We find a husband and wife anxiously debating the foreboding folklore surrounding a mysterious guest, entirely in Yiddish. Joel Coen has himself said that this doesn’t have any relationship to what follows. However, with parallels discernible between the folklore, the religious convictions and the sense of belief guiding one’s actions, you can certainly find connections if you want.

Therein lies a pleasurable gem of the film. Larry asks if the meaning of his ordeals is some kind of test for him to be a serious and righteous man. So the viewer can look for the meaning that ties the film together, and not just its beginning and end, but the middle, too. Is it a test? Is there a unified meaning? The Coens ask, what do you think? It’s not so much that there is a void at heart, rather an acknowledgement that you’ll naturally fill such a vacuum yourself. It’s an inescapable, enjoyable and rewarding experience.

The film opens with the precept: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." When they provide such remarkable portmanteau delights, doing so is a pleasure.

Reviewed on: 01 Nov 2009
Share this with others on...
A Serious Man packshot
Black comedy about a professor whose life starts to unravel.
Amazon link

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Writer: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Simon Helberg, Adam Arkin, Amy Landecker, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus

Year: 2009

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

London 2009

Search database:


If you like this, try:

Barton Fink