Larry Gopnik, a Midwestern mathematics teacher, watches his life unravel over multiple sudden incidents. Though seeking meaning and answers amidst his turmoils, he seems to keep sinking.
A Serious Man is the second comedy in a row from the Coen Brothers, following the disappointing ‘Burn After Reading’, and it’s one of their best ones. I’ve generally preferred the Coen’s grittier dramas than their comedic films (The Big Lebowski being the obvious exception), but ‘A Serious Man’ is an excellent portrayal of an ordinary man who feels as though his world is crashing down on multiple levels. It’s a very ‘jewish’ film and it does a good job of portraying some of the quirks and customs of the Jewish religion, as well as lightly poking fun at it without becoming insulting.
The cast is led by Michael Stuhlbarg (most commonly known for his portrayal of Arnold Rothstein in the TV series, Boardwalk Empire), and he is excellent as physics professor, Larry Gopnik. He lives at home with his wife, his two kids and his brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who sleeps on the couch. His home life comes crashing down when his wife informs him she needs a ‘get’ (a Jewish divorce document) in order to marry the widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). The surreal nature of this situation is played entirely straight and the meekness of Gopnik comes through as he seemingly just accepts the situation. Meanwhile at work, he awaits an impending vote on his application for tenure, when his department head informs him that anonymous letters have been received advising them to deny him. In addition to this, an Asian student and his father threaten and try to bribe Larry if he won’t let the student pass his class. Larry is too nebbish and mild mannered to challenge or fight back properly, keeping his counsel primarily internal, besides a couple of encounters with useless and unhelpful rabbis.
Stuhlbarg’s performance is terrific and he drives the whole film forward. It would be wrong to describe the performance as a ‘tour de force’ but it could be described as whatever the mild mannered version of a ‘tour de force’ is! Out of the supporting cast, Fred Melamed is excellent as Sy, the man stealing his wife in perhaps the most amicable way possible, and Richard Kind is as great as always as his mentally challenged brother. One of the things that struck me about the film is how low key and small stakes everything seems, and how no one other than Larry can feel the monumental impact of dealing with all these problems. Larry is stuck in a situation where he is trying to live a ‘good Jewish life’ whilst everything happening around him challenges this immensely. Stuhlbarg is great at portraying his internalisation of these features, and his attempts to take some agency for himself are pretty funny.
In these reviews I’ve talked a lot about Carter Burwell’s scores and their almost consistent excellence, and ‘A Serious Man’ is one of the finest examples yet of using music to enhance the proceedings. I also liked the setting, with the purposeful blandness of the neighbourhood and the characters lifestyle speaking volumes at a metaphorical level.
Overall, ‘A Serious Man’ is a bit of an oddity, and I suspect it’ll be an acquired taste, but if you let it get under your skin, it’s very dark and very funny, and strangely enough at times, very moving. Recommended.
Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Adam Arkin, Amy Landecker, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Michael Lerner, Simon Helberg and George Wyner