Film: A Serious Man
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Fried Melamed
Runtime: 105 Mins
Critics and film students alike love to agonise over the Coen brothers’ idiosyncratic films. With each Coen release, cinephiles pore over hours of footage, searching for imagery, clues, scholarly subtexts – only to have their analyses rubbished by the Coens’ cursory shrug and insistence that their films simply ‘aren’t about anything, really’. But are we to take their word for it? After all, these are the pranksters who released a film (Fargo) that opened with the words ‘based on a true story’ that was anything but. And A Serious Man will be no exception to the fanboy theorizing: is this strange tale a profound meditation on existentialism? Or a modern-day retelling of the biblical tale of Job? Perhaps, but, more importantly, this is a Coen film: one about the fun that can be had in gently deriding everyone and everything, and, typically, arriving at a baffling message of life’s futility.
A Serious Man tells the story of an ill-fated Jew and physics lecturer, Larry Gopnik, who lives in a bland, suburban Jewish community and is beset by endless misfortune. His adulterous wife demands a divorce, his job tenure is on the line, he struggles with alienated children and a troublesome brother. Meanwhile, one of Larry’s students is trying to bribe him for a pass grade while threatening to sue him for defamation. In a desperate attempt to make sense of it all and to be a ‘mensch’ – a serious man– Larry turns to his religion for answers.
Larry goes from Rabbi to Rabbi searching for meaning – and, to much hilarity, each Rabbi digresses, via irrelevant parables and perplexing imagery, from the question they quite clearly do not know the answer to. In Hudsucker Proxy we saw the brothers poke fun at corporate business; in Fargo at Minnesotans; in Burn After Reading at American narcissism; and now the brothers gently chide the Jewish culture of their upbringing. The humour may be too off-kilter to have audiences howling with laughter, but shrewd enough to have them smirking: be it family slurping of soup; or the paradox of a physicist teaching the principles of uncertainty and yet seeking certainty in his religion; or the wise Rabbi dishing out advice cribbed from Jefferson Airplane lyrics. And the point, like so many Coen films, is that there is no point. Larry must accept that there is no real meaning.
However, the torture Larry’s subjected to and his increasing spiritual desperation is, at times, almost intolerable to watch. This is truly a black comedy – the film is a concoction of bitter darkness and joyful mockery. But A Serious Man’s characters are drawn more finely than in the usual Coen comedies: the hyperbole-laden caricatures of The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou? are replaced with disturbingly realist brushstrokes. Broadway actor Michael Stuhlbarg gives an inspired, yet understated performance, imbuing Larry with a helpless sensibility. This time, the brothers sadistically and comically afflict their subjects, we come to care about these tormented souls, which, strangely, makes this one of their warmest features yet.