A Serious ManWritten and directed by Joel and Ethan CoenStarring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed and Aaron WolffRated R*8.5*Goes well with: No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink, Pi
The thing is, you just never know what the Coen brothers are going to do. Two years ago, they deservedly won scads of Oscars for their brilliant adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, a brutal look at the nature of good and evil. And then last year, they returned with the star-studded spy comedy Burn After Reading, which was a weak indulgence, an artsy addition to the Ocean's Eleven set. For every Fargo, it always seems like there's a Ladykillers lurking not far behind.
But the Coens have never made a movie like A Serious Man before, combining the screwball sensibilities of O Brother with the larger issues of No Country. But this isn't an existential film—far from it. In fact, A Serious Man is deeply personal, an examination of faith and God through the eyes of one man, thought to be loosely based upon the Coens' own father. It's also maddeningly uncertain, terribly funny and intentionally unwilling to give up any easy answers.
Michael Stuhlbarg is Larry Gopnik, a mathematics professor at a small Midwestern university in 1967. He has a wife and two kids, and he's up for tenure. Everything should be going great. But two weeks before his son's (Aaron Wolff) bar mitzvah, his wife (Sari Lennick) announces that not only does she want a divorce, but she also wants a get, a ritual Jewish divorce, because she's taken up with Sy Ableman (the velvet-voiced Fred Melamed). Larry's brother (Richard Kind) is a mathematics genius who's unemployable and living on Larry's couch. His daughter (Jessica McManus) wants a nose job. His son is a delinquent. His redneck neighbor's encroaching over his property line. Someone is sending anonymous, disparaging letters to the tenure committee. And a disgruntled student (David Kang) has left a bribe on his desk accompanied by threats of blackmail if he isn't passed.
Yes, that's all terrible stuff. But to make matters considerably worse, the only counsel Larry's given by all his friends and colleagues is to consult his rabbi, advice that ends up being less than helpful. The junior rabbi (Simon Helberg) is too green to really provide useful advice, advising Larry simply to see the good in life. His elder (George Wyner) offers up a parable that is an amazing piece of filmmaking from the Coens but, in the end, leaves Larry even more confused. The eldest rabbi won't even see him.
No one is asking the right question. The movie isn't about how to survive these plagues of life; it's about why these things are happening. Are they tests from God, putting Larry on the spot like a modern-day Job? Are they part of a simple coincidence, or could they be a mathematical certainty derived from his brother's formulas? And regardless of the answer, can a man survive amid a downturn of such Biblical proportions?
Stuhlbarg, looking like a cross between Joaquin Phoenix and David Paymer, is a terrific actor, absolutely appealing in his crisis of life and faith. And Roger Deakins, the Coens' longtime collaborator, shoots the film in a way that makes the smallest things in life seem mysterious, like the wire on a transistor radio or the ear hair of an elderly man.
That's the good news. The bad news, if you choose to take it that way, is that the Coens don't give us any easy religious certainties. The ending of A Serious Man leads you to wonder if what you think you just saw is what actually happened and forces you to consider what might happen to these people after the camera stopped rolling.
For many, this will be an unsettling, unsatisfying finish. But that's why it's also so ingenious. Religion is putting your faith into something that is entirely uncertain, and if the Coen brothers have said anything consistently throughout their canon, it's that life, the universe—everything—it's all an unknowable chaotic mess. No one has the answers, including Joel and Ethan. And in A Serious Man, they tell you, very seriously, that you probably don't, either.
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