Movie Review: A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009)–****

It goes against conventional wisdom to even suggest that the Coen brothers could make a better film than Fargo. Their latest comedy, A Serious Man, however, comes daringly close. It’s more fiercely moralistic than any other Coen brothers film, without the brute force. And it’s more intensely personal than anything we’ve seen them produce, with moments of comic sadness that even regular Coen audiences won’t expect. A Serious Man brings clarity to the Coens’ filmography, but even this single film, which feels like a culminating work, delivers, in itself, on a level only the brothers could achieve.

A Serious Man opens in Eastern Europe years prior to the main narrative. A Jewish man has just returned home, late, because the wheel on his cart broke. He tells his wife that a kind and generous soul helped him fix it. When the wife learns the old man’s name, she tells her husband that the man had died. She says the man’s body must be possessed by dybbuk, an evil spirit from Hebrew folklore. The husband, she says, has brought evil into the household. When the man (played by the fantastic Fyvush Finkel) shows up at their home minutes later, the wife stabs him. He doesn’t bleed at first, but at the suggestion that his bloodless wound proves what he his, the man begins to bleed. He staggers out of the house.

Cut to Minnesota, 1967, where a Midwestern Jew named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) teaches physics at a university. Gopnik is a perfect and upright man, even if his family is not. His son smokes pot in the school bathroom and listens to Jefferson Airplane in class. His daughter is obsessed with washing her hair. His freeloading brother (Richard Kind) with a gambling problem sleeps on his couch. And his wife (Sari Lennick), who may have been unfaithful, demands a divorce.

Gopnik’s life is unraveling without reason, so he seeks the wisdom of Rabbis in his community. Why would Hashem thrust this upon him when he is a good man? And, he asks, “Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not gonna give us any answers?” Faced with the goy next door encroaching on his property line, a seductive neighbor tempting him while her husband is away, and a student offering him a bribe for passing grades, Gopnik tries his best to stay a serious man.

You’d think that with their relatively unknown lead actor and diminutive budget the Coens were having a Soderbergh moment. Not at all. A Serious Man isn’t a palate cleanser, but rather another satisfying course from two of cinema’s master chefs.

Like Barton Fink but better, the Coens’ A Serious Man is a dark, humorous take on Judaism that someone like Woody Allen could only dream of making. The film works as a surface level comic tragedy, with the help of supporting players like Kind, Finkel and Fred Melamed (as Gopnik’s wife’s new beau). It’s also a rich, textured meditation on the faith. The Coens, filmmakers who’ve made blending and bending genres a signature, have added a weighty bass tone to their already tested and true harmony.

Writing that makes it sound like the Coens haven’t really made a serious picture before this. Sometimes, though, it takes a Vertigo to really understand a Rear Window. A Serious Man is a rare, unguarded picture from filmmakers who already demonstrated an effortless grasp of the medium and are now willing to bare their souls just a little. The souls we see here could only belong to the Coens.

A Serious Man, starring Michael Stuhlbarg, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is in select cities now.

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