A Serious Man (2009) Dir. Ethan & Joel Coen

Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to stop his brother's (Richard Kind) life from unravelling at the same time as his is reaching crisis point.

Rating: 10/10

The Coen Brothers have returned in fine form after the (in my humble opinion) disastous Burn After Reading. This film seems to be a much more personal one set as it is around a Jewish neighbourhood in the suburbs of Minnesota in the sixties. It focuses on maths professor Larry Gopnik (a brilliant Michael Stuhlbarg whose lack of fame means he is the perfect everyman) a man in crisis (and the Coen Brother are brilliant at doing men in crisis just look at the excellent Barton Fink) whose life starts to quickly unravel to his utter bewilderment. Larry is your average unassuming Jewish middle-class man with a family, wife (Sari Lennick), steady job  and nice house  in a nice suburb who makes sure (or tries to make sure) his children attend hebrew class and looks after his wayward unemployed brother Arthur (A brilliant Richard Kind). Naturally then he does not understand the shit storm that hits him.

It starts off with his wife leaving him for widower Sy Ableman (a brilliantly patronising and ridiculously zen-like Fred Melamed) forcing him to move to the Jolly Roger motel, we then quickly also see that his kids do not respect his authority and are not serious about hebrew lessons, to them he’s the one that fixes the satellite. Meanwhile, he is pestered by a Korean student Clive (a brilliantly¬†presumptious David Kang) who wants a better grade and tests his scruples by leaving him money, his brother is found to soliciting illegal homosexual encounters and¬†he possibly faces losing his job over his lack of¬†published work and negative letters from Clive’s dad. And if that wasn’t enough he could also have a potentially serious medical condition.

It’s a tragic downward spiral that cannot be tempered or halted by religious consolation, visiting the two different rabbis (great comic cameos from George Wyner and Simon Helberg) or even consulting his longtime lawyer (Jon Kaminski Jr.) just leads to frustration.¬†But as with any Coen brothers film the tragedy is always leavened with a rich vein of sometimes absurdist humour, which is where Stuhlberg’s¬† increasingly aggravated and bewildered mannerisms and facial expressions come in so well. Just to witness them as he is called up by a persistant Columbia record salesman, demanding the payment of records his son bought without his knowledge, is¬†pure delight (He also does a very good ridiculously stoned impression).

Scenes ¬†where Larry is at his lowest ebb are indeed some of the funniest scenes, witness the aforementioned rabbi scenes where the first junior rabbi earnestly calls upon¬†Larry to have a fresh perspective and “look at the parking lot” in a new way.¬†While the second older rabbi simply tells him an irelevant long-winded story about a dentist who finds the words ‘help me’ in hebrew on the back of a gentile’s teeth.

Then there’s the other great eccentric characters that populate the film like the oldest rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell) who quotes Jefferson Airplane (who feature prominently in what is a great soundtrack)¬†lyric’s at Larry’ son¬† Danny’s¬† Bar Mitzvah (in itself a comic affair with Danny (Aaron Wolff) stoned out of his brains).¬†Or¬† his racist red neck neighbour Mr. Brandt (Peter Breitmayer) a man who thinks nothing of building property on Larry’s garden or taking his son out for school so they can go hunting for deer.

The cinematography by longtime Coen brother colloborator Roger Deakins is also first rate using canted/extreme angles and blurred lenses to create a sense of a world gone wrong or a drugged state.

What did slightly puzzle¬†me about the film was the unexplained prologue set sometime in the past presumably showing Larry’s ancestors dealing with what they, or at least the woman thinks, is a Dybbuk (evil spirit)¬† which the woman promptly stabs and possibly kills. Could this suggest a curse which goes through the Gopnik’s descendents¬† utlimately reaching Larryor is it just to make Sy’s haunting of Larry in his dreams (after a fatal car crash in which Larry is involved) more tangible? Who knows it is certainly left up to us to decide.

Which is actually one of the great things about a Coen brothers film they never provide easy answers to life’s big questions. And A Serious Man provokes us to explore questions such as: Does religion really provide comfort in our greatest time of need? Why do bad things happen to good people? Does doing good things even make a positive difference to our lives? Do we have destinies or are we just lucky or unlucky? All this in one film which is damn funny too, what more could you want?

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