A Serious Man has so much more going for it than any other Coen Brothers film that it’s hard to pin down. On the surface it’s a black comedy about religion, the struggle of right from wrong and paying for your sins. But it has an underlying message that is open to interpretation. That said – I haven’t laughed as hard at a Coen Brothers film as I did while watching it and I’d put it right beside Fargo as one of the Brothers’ best.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a good father, husband and physics professor. It’s 1967 and he lives an ordinary life; he works, goes to synagogue and genuinely seems happy. All of that changes when a student of his tries to bribe him for a better grade. Soon after, his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) leaves him because she has fallen in love with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) – an annoying acquaintance of his. His unemployed, sickly brother Arthur (Richard Kind) takes up permanent residence on his couch and his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is having problems with a bully and smoking copious amounts of marijuana on a regular basis. His teenage daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is stealing from him so she can save for a nose job. And to top it all off he is being hounded by Columbia House for money he owes them for records he never bought. On the bright side, his sexy neighbour Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) sunbathes naked and is really into him.
Looking for answers on what it all means, he turns to his synagogue. And in a series of conversations with three very different rabbis (played by George Wyner, Alan Mandell and Simon Helberg) he only gets more confused as to what it is he needs to do to become a good person – to become a serious man.
The cast, mostly unknown, is great. Stuhlbarg’s done many small roles in his career and this is sure to make him a familiar face. I predict he’ll become a regular Coen Brothers mainstay too as he fits their style. He delivers his performance with just the right amount of humour, anxiety and angst that it’s hard not to relate to him. Kind and Wyner are reliable for laughs (as they usually are) but it’s Lennick’s portrayal of a strong, Jewish woman in the 60s that really stands out. She is animated and fun to watch, and yet gives some of the most heartbreaking lines in the film. How this is her only movie credit is astonishing.
This being a Coen Brothers film, you instinctually expect a great story with strong dialogue and visuals. You also know that anything can and will happen. If you’re a fan of the Brothers, A Serious Man will not let you down. From the clothes and set direction to the background scenery it has a very meticulous and unique look that will please most film geeks too. Be warned though, it has an abrupt ending that might leave a sour taste in your mouth. Sit with it for awhile and let it sink in and you will be amazed at the impact it will have.
**** out of 5 stars
ALSO OPENING THIS WEEK: Where the Wild Things Are, Law Abiding Citizen, The Damned United, The Stepfather, The Burning Plain, Taqwacore, Good Hair
Top image: Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man. Courtesy Alliance Films.