Larry Gopnik, the protagonist for the Coen Brothers’ latest opus A Serious Man, may be one of the saddest figures in recent cinematic history. A chemistry professor whose life is turning into a series of unfortunate turns as his wife Judith who has an affair with widower Sy Ableman, receives various letters threatening to not grant him tenure, has children who don’t respect him, and is forced to share a hotel room with his socially awkward brother who spends most of his time in there draining his neck cyst. It’s hard not to wince at the metaphysical abuse Larry endures as the film goes on and to his continuously search for faith to answer just why such bad luck haunts him. Yet suffering isn’t unknown characters from Coen Brothers films. From the escalating insanity and weirdness that engulfs Barton Fink’s arrival to Hollywood to the horrifying unraveling of Jerry Lundegaard’s ransom deal to the pure hell that presents itself as The Dude’s identity is mistaken for the other Lebowski, its safe to say Larry isn’t alone in the Coen Brother universe when it comes to terrible luck.
Yet Larry’s dilemma seems almost biblical. A Serious Man can easily be interpreted as a modern bible story or even the Book of Job set in a Minnesota Jewish suburb in 1967. The film even opens with a prologue set in biblical times spoken completely in Yiddish. The scene opens with a man coming home to his wife and telling her joyously that he ran into an old friend and has invited him to dinner. His wife informs him that she had heard the old friend he had ran into had died years ago and speculates that her husband had invited a dybbuk (supernatural intruder). The man is skeptical and the old friend comes to dinner. As the meal comes to an end, the wife stabs the old friend to prove her dybbuk theory. The old friend just sits and laughs making the audience think that he really is a dybbuk. Just then we see a blood slowly soaking through his shirt and see him leave the married couple’s house, making us question whether or not he really was a dybbuk. This feeling is present throughout the film; The question of whether there’s a higher power behind Larry’s torment or not. We witness Larry pursue three different Rabbis questioning whether this was really God testing him. All of it leading to a dramatic climax that further pushes the audience to judge whether it was the hand of God that was testing (with Larry coming across hard choices like an Asian-American student bribing him to change his final grade or lusting over his next door neighbor) or even punishing poor Larry Gopnik or just merely bad luck. It’s an incredible, thought provoking ending that will have surely have detractors of the abrupt ending for No Country for Old Men arguing even more.
It’s interesting to see the Coens pull a 360 from using an all star cast in their last outing, Burn After Reading, to using a cast of relatively no name actors and great character actors. It works out brilliantly with a phenomenal lead performance from Michael Stuhlbarg (a performance that rivals both Christopher Waltz of Inglorious Basterds and Michael Fassbender of Hunger as the best male performance this year). Both Fred Melamed, as the despicable Sy Ableman, and Richard Kind, as Larry’s brother and most known for his portrayal of Paul Lassiter on Spin City, deliver great supporting performances.
The Coen Brothers already have a catalog of phenomenal films that range from psychological thrillers to film noirs to gangster films to comedies to even the hallucinatory surrealist trip. While I did enjoy this film and put it high on my list, the film had it’s flaws which includes a few Jewish jokes that might not win over everyone and a running gag involving Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 hit “Somebody to Love” that wore out it’s welcome for me. The film has garnered criticism about the Coen’s having fun torturing Larry, and while I for the most part disagree with that statement, I also admit that there are a few scene where it was even far too much for me (including one very touching scene between Larry and his brother that turns out to be a dream). But a film so layered should be seen and discussed and it may be the one of the most interesting films about the crisis of one’s faith since Luis Bunuel’s magnum opus Viridiana or Milos Forman’s epic Amadeus. With A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers have created their most complex, most human and maybe their most mature film to date and deserving to be compared with Barton Fink, No Country for Old Men, or, dare I say, Fargo.