, 106 min, 2009
Michael Stuhlbarg (Larry Gopnik), Richard Kind (Uncle Arthur), Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman), Sari Lennick (Judith Gopnik), Aaron Wolff (Danny Gopnik), Jessica McManus (Sarah Gopnik), Peter Breitmayer (Mr. Brandt), Brent Braunschweig (Mitch Brandt), David Kang (Clive Park), Benjamin Portnoe (Danny’s Reefer Buddy), Jack Swiler (Boy on Bus), Andrew S. Lentz (Cursing Boy on Bus), Jon Kaminski Jr. (Mike Fagle), Ari Hoptman (Arlen Finkle), Alan Mandell (Rabbi Marshak). Directed, produced, and written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you
Such a Jewish movie is this! The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man is quietly, darkly hilarious, has serious overtones, is a bit surreal, is somewhat existential in nature – and it’s the most flat-out Jewish film the Minnesota wonder duo has produced to date.
The film begins with a prologue in Yiddish with English subtitles, shot in the 1.33:1 Full Frame aspect ratio (like TV and pre-widescreen films used to be). Somewhere in Poland a long time ago (or so we gather), a man called Shtetl (Allen Lewis Rickman) comes in from the cold, telling his wife (Yelena Shmulenson) that he’s been saved by someone he hasn’t seen in a long time. She informs him that his savior has been dead quite a while, and is in fact a “Dybbuk” (Fyvush Finkel of TV’s Picket Fences) – the wandering soul of a dead man. How Shtetl’s wife intends to prove she’s right about this mysterious “savior” is startling and very funny. So is the rest of the film.
Flash-forward to 1967 and the small Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, where we meet Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a small university. Larry’s down on his luck: a failing Korean student named Clive (David Kang) wants him to change his grade and apparently leaves an envelope of money as a means of coming to an understanding in this regard. Meanwhile, several unsigned letters have come to his superiors denigrating him and potentially jeopardizing the promise of being granted tenure.
His home life is no picnic either: his brother Arthur (Richard Kind, most famous from TV’s Mad About You) is sleeping on the couch and spending most of his time in the bathroom – much to Larry’s teenage daughter’s chagrin; his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is obsessed with spending all her time on her hair, even avoiding going to school; his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is on the verge of his Bar Mitzvah, owes money to a thug, is obsessed with getting the aerial TV antenna to pick up F-Troop, has his transistor radio confiscated at Hebrew school (while listening to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” – a refrain of layered meaning); and to top it all off, his wife Judith (Sari Lannick) is leaving him for the unnervingly calm and polite Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, a frequent supporting player in Woody Allen’s films, hilarious here before he even comes on screen). What’s a guy to do? Before long, it’s time to call in the less-than-helpful lawyer (Adam Arkin).
All around him things are changing: after his separation, when he and his brother are forced out to share a room at the Jolly Roger motel, Larry begins to notice his sexually liberated neighbor Mrs. Lamsky (Amy Landecker), who sunbathes topless, drinks and smokes pot, and whose husband always seems to be away. Oy vey!
Larry’s life is in upheaval and before long, he’s searching for reasons why all this is happening to him. He seeks answers from various Rabbis: Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), who tries to distract him with aesthetics; Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), who relays to him a mysterious tale of mystical dentistry – to what end?; and finally, there’s the ever-elusive and wise Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), who may or may not have some ideas about what’s happening.
The austere cinematography by Coens collaborator Roger Deakins is both stylish and mundane, alternating between the everyday, featuring cool, crisp, carefully composed shots of a suburban Minnesota existence in the late 60s, and the drug-and-nightmare-induced haze, utilizing soft-and-blurred-focus shots and occasional Dutch angles to surreal effect.
The performances are all wonderful, from the small to the featured. Stuhlbarg may not be a name familiar to those outside the circle of New York theater-goers that have become his fan base, but here he creates a full-on character with whom we can both sympathize and find ourselves amused. The rest of the cast, especially Melamed as the soothing-voiced, silver-tongued adulterer, is uniformly superb.
So: is it all some form of karma for something he’s done to offend the fates? Is it a terrible coincidence? Does it have anything to do with Larry directly? Perhaps it’s what happened between his relative and the alleged Dybbuk way back when. Who knows?
The point of the film, written, directed and produced by Joel & Ethan Coen, is that nobody knows; the only virtual certainty in life is uncertainty – if you don’t have the answers, who does? Unlike the heroes of their early, similarly stylized triumph Barton Fink (1991) or their universally beloved masterpiece Fargo (1996), this guy has seemingly done nothing wrong and therefore, his fate is all the more puzzling. Like some sort of suburban, microcosmic take on Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), we can relate on some level to poor Larry, because who hasn’t felt pressures and difficulties piling on one after another, in merciless succession? Also like that great film, who can’t laugh at someone else’s pain so they may not cry? Like the Firewater song “Another Perfect Catastrophe” suggests:
Every tragedy is a comedy / Unless you are the victim
Truer words were never spoken.
Footnote: I saw this film for the second time and finally noticed something – you stay through the ending credits, which reveal a barely noticeable disclaimer that is hilarious and fitting… a sideways wink from your friendly neighborhood Coen Brothers.