By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Brooding and dark, offering lightness only to artistically refract the tragic irony of their parable, with “A Serious Man” the Brothers Coen pull out all the stops. Hinting, dabbling and flirting at the precipice of a fatal vision in nearly everything they’ve done to date, this treatise on the unfairness of being is their blackest yet. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t funny.
In fact, the incredibility of what befalls their Job-like protagonist never fails to get us near giddy in omigod astonishment. Poor Professor Larry Gopnik, portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg, cannot catch the proverbial break. What’s even worse, no one really cares…at least no one on this Earth. His fate seems as immutable as the laws of physics he teaches.
On the eve of this tale—preceded by an ominous, Yiddishe prologue/playlet set in an Eastern European shtetl—the prof’s ducks are in sad disarray. Seated at the loveless dinner table, it is apparent that, whether he knows it or not, he leads a life of quiet desperation. In fact, he isn’t leading it at all, but being wafted by its impersonal whims.
We immediately take it on faith, not caring what Larry’s done or failed to do, that wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is an unremitting shrew, a heartless harridan. His teen-aged children, Danny (Aaron Wolff) and Sarah (Jessica McManus), are no better…the selfish wastrels. The bombshell is, Judith wants a divorce.
Our first reaction is “Great!” However, whether it’s because this is the Midwest and it’s the 1960s, or there’s something we haven’t been apprised of yet, Larry is decimated. Adding insult to injury, Judith wants hubby to make nice and speak with widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his heir apparent. Wait, there’s more.
At work, the tenure committee has been deep in deliberation. Under discussion is whether that golden halo assuring perpetual job security in the ivory tower of academia will be granted. Per a fellow prof who doubles as little bird in the know, it could go either way. Hmm…seems some anonymous ne’er-do-well has been sending defamatory letters.
Gosh, maybe it has to do with the bribe—an envelope full of hundred dollar bills—a Korean pupil offered Dr. Gopnik in return for a passing grade. More problems mount, not the least of which is Larry’s brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), an unemployed nebbish with unrealized mathematical abilities bunking on the couch. Judith wants them both gone.
Chief among the confounding perplexities that form the car accident attraction of this curiously unconventional film is Larry’s stalwartness, or at least what poses as such. To coin from the vernacular of the era, he just keeps on trucking. But darn if he’s really that brave, crazy or stupid. We’d like to think he figures in some grand, epiphanic scheme.
But we fear he is emblematic of whatever sad truth writer-directors Ethan and Joel Coen are trying to prove. Which calls to mind the probably apocryphal elucidation attributed to Robert Browning: “Madame, when that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—G-d and Robert Browning. And now only G-d knows what it means.”
The point is, it’s cinematic poetry, abstract, obscure and for us to figure out, or at least scratch our heads over for a while. While admittedly their most autobiographical work, although only the stencil of a predominantly Jewish, Minneapolis suburb is based in fact, it addresses issues large and small with the love-hate of a scholarly and pained insider.
Their depiction of the diasporic Jew falls somewhere between Philip Roth and Woody Allen in both critical severity and wit, the gallows attitude extending to the closing credits, when they assure that “No Jews were hurt in the making of this motion picture.”
An inspired chutzpah mixes revelatory lyrics by Jefferson Airplane with Talmudic lore.
All of which makes for an alternately frightening and cathartically humorous, funhouse ride through Jewish American culture. Every one of the existential biggies is covered, ranging from if there’s a G-d and whether he cares about us, to love, marriage, family, duty and organized religion. Relative unknowns help make real the foundering victims.
Michael Stuhlbarg is quietly superb as Professor Larry Gopnik, the schmaltz-ridden, ethnocentric equivalent of Donald Sutherland’s agonizing WASP (Calvin Jarrett) in “Ordinary People” (1980). Whereas Larry tries to find solutions within the catacombs of his heritage, Calvin’s canon initially persuades him to deny there is a problem.
But there is. And after much ado, both men ultimately wend their way, satisfactorily or not, through the shocking rigors of ordeal. Thus, while ethos may dictate how one faces this ungracious rite of passage, we get the egalitarian notion that, no matter one’s legacy, when it comes to life’s major mysteries, “A Serious Man” must decide his own answers.
“A Serious Man,” rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen and stars Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind and Sari Lennick. Running time: 105 minutes
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