Movie Review – A Serious Man (2009)
by NIR SHALEV
A Serious Man is directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s contemporary, black comedy re-telling of The Book of Job. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is their Job. He lives in a 1967 Minneapolis suburb. A physics professor, his blackboard is filled with ridiculously long and confusing equations and calculations. His work life is fine, but his home life is a mess. The Gropniks are the quintessential Jewish suburban family in an almost entirely Jewish neighborhood. His wife drifts apart from him and is suddenly having an affair with his next door neighbor, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); his son always gets into trouble in school and is growing fond of Jefferson Airplane; his daughter is secretly stealing money from him, little by little to support her future rhinoplasty operation; and his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on his living-room couch everyday and doesn’t bother trying to find a place of his own. In short, Larry’s family and personal life are falling apart right before his eyes.
Larry appeals to four different rabbis for an answer to why his life has taken a sudden turn for the worst. The first rabbi is unavailable and his much younger stand-in is useless. The second rabbi offers one of the funniest and most rewarding stories in the film. He tells Larry the story of the “Goy’s Teeth,” how the patient of a known Jewish dentist had the words “help me” written in Hebrew and backwards on the back on his teeth. For weeks and even months, the dentist could not find an answer or decent reason for this and decided that ignoring the problem might be the best solution. It turned out that he was right while Larry, by now infuriated, is wondering what the moral of the story was and what it has to do with him. Alas, the rabbi cannot provide him with an answer and unlike the audience Larry doesn’t find the situation comical. The third and fourth rabbis I leave to you to discover.
What we see throughout this film is a man who is searching for answers about existence and why good and bad cannot be properly defined within the context of Larry Gopnik. Larry is wondering as to why everything bad is happening to him all of a sudden and without warning; he even tries asking God but figures out that it’s a silly notion after all.
The film is nihilistic to its core and therefore presents itself as a black comedy; the Coen Brothers wouldn’t want audience members to leave the theater with a bitter taste in their mouths – well, not entirely anyway. I can still feel the darkness of Larry’s situation and his desperation and attitudes, but I did however laugh quite a bit throughout the film. It’s much like a rollercoaster: one is thrilled and scared during the dips but then the track straightens and allows one to breathe until the next terrifying dip.
The performances are all superb. Michael Stuhlbarg is an unknown actor yet his performance as Larry is as wonderfully complex as the character itself. He is always seeking answers and instead of absolution, he’s hitting many a brick wall. We laugh at the moments when he is confused, but when he’s scared we feel for him. Fred Melamed as Sy Ableman is fantastic as well. He speaks in a low and slow tone of voice, always taking command of the conversation and somewhat scares Larry, in that snake-like kind of way. The children are wonderful as ordinary siblings who hate one another while Richard Kind as Larry’s brother is quiet and gives his character an alarmingly well-meaning manner.
The cinematography is top notch. Reminiscent of the Coens’ previous masterpiece No Country for Old Men (2007), A Serious Man also contains those strong oranges and browns in its color palette and because it’s a 1960s period piece we see those blue Cadillacs that rock like boats, the perfectly rectangular green lawns that are code for a boring suburb, and those dreaded rabbit-ears on every rooftop. The colors are masterfully flushed, like in those great 1950s and ‘60s Technicolor films. Everything looks soft in texture and the film feels like it was shot 50 years ago.
I have honestly no negative criticism for this film. It runs at a much slower pace than the Coens’ usual comedies and even their dramas; if anything I would compare this to Barton Fink (1991). The comedy here is not slapstick nor does it contain idiots like in their previous, clever comedy Burn After Reading (2008), but we do tend to laugh during those wonderful moments of silence that in most comedies today would be punctuated by a person slipping onto the floor or belching/puking (take your pick).
This is another Coen Brothers’ miracle, a masterpiece in style and complex substance, a film that begs the audience to figure things out for themselves. But not too much; it tells you exactly what you need to know about the beginning, middle and end, and the final image perfectly summarizes the happenings and plot. First Fargo (1996), then No Country, and now A Serious Man. I can’t wait to see what they have in stock for us next!