A Serious Man

The new Coen Brothers comedy A Serious Man is a jagged, absorbing and brilliantly acted fable about one man’s struggle when a seemingly endless rain of problems starts to fall on his head.

The film opens with a short prologue set long ago in a Polish shtetl, in which a man and his wife are visited by a kindly old man. The suspicious wife thinks the visitor is a dybbuk, a kind of Jewish zombie, and dispatches him without thinking. Has she saved their lives, or cursed countless generations forever? We never know for sure, but the suspicion remains.

Flash forward to an unnamed American city in 1967. Mathematics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is attempting to explain Schrodinger’s classic thought experiment to his bored students. A cat, he tells them, is put in a sealed box with some radioactive material that might kill it at any time. Until the box is opened, we can observe the animal exists in two states; alive and dead, saved and cursed. The students don’t really understand, but perhaps Larry isn’t explaining himself very well. He’s in an unstable box himself.

There is catastrophe - or worse, potential catastrophe - wherever he looks. At home, his marriage to the brash Judith (Sari Lennick) is failing, his son is preparing for his bar mitzvah by smoking pot and watching television and his teenage daughter is demanding a nose job. Then there’s the matter of his deadbeat (Richard Kind), a deeply annoying moocher with a mysterious medical condition. At work, things are no better; A South Korean student is bribing him for a better grade and someone has been sending unflattering letters about Larry to his superiors.

Faced with this onslaught of calamity, Larry seeks the comfort and guidance of three Rabbis, a series of uproarious consultations that provide the story with a firm backbone. Can any of these learned men help him stop his life from dissolving around him and help him become an upstanding person – the serious man of the title; a mensch? But what can Larry make from the ramblings of his religious leaders when he struggles to articulate his questions? “God doesn’t owe us anything,” Rabbi Nachtner tells him. “The obligation runs the other way.” But why, Larry wonders, won’t He fix any of life’s problems? “He hasn’t told me,” the rabbi responds.

A Serious Man is the first Coen brothers film with an autobiographical edge and it perfectly captures both the time and culture of growing up Jewish in the heartland of 1960s America. The film acts as a distillation of the themes and techniques that have occupied the filmmaking brothers for their entire careers; a witty, idea-packed script that tells a compelling and engaging story, filled with cinematic and literary references, visual winks, cultural touchstones and delightfully complicated dead ends. The film is brilliantly acted by the unfamiliar cast, predominantly stage actors, the standout being Stuhlbarg’s floundering Larry, a study in panic trying to understand why God has cursed him to suffer. Shot in luminous tones by their usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and scored by their regular composer, Carter Burwell, A Serious Man is a darkly funny and wholly absorbing film that is deliberately, deliciously evasive, right up to the final scenes. It is one of the films of the year.

1 comment:

Lozzie Cap said...

I have read the first three paragraphs of this post but will read no more until I have seen the film - for that is what your first three paragraphs have made me want to do ..!