Tart, admirably low-key, and exquisitely realized, A Serious Man is a brilliantly acted fable of life’s little cosmic difficulties, a Coen brothers comedy with a dark philosophical outlook and a script brimming in verbal wit. It’s their warmest and most personal movie since Fargo.
The film begins in an ancient riddle – a Yiddish-language folk story that’s just one of two mini-masterpieces within; the other is a dental chair morality tale – and ends in the rumble of an oncoming storm. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg) is a professor of physics hoping for tenure. His son’s bar mitzvah, his wife’s request for a get, his brother’s gambling problem, and one of his student’s bribes all coalesce to create hindrance and moral temptation for someone who has tried without fail to be “a serious man.”
Working with affectionate mockery, Joel and Ethan Coen (The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading) take the cinder-block-synagogue banality of American Jewish life in 1967 and make it look as archly exotic as the loopy Scandinavian-American winterscape of Fargo. The filmmakers’ technical mastery of their craft, always impressive, has become absolute. The screenplay reads like a novel, densely allusive, funny, and terse.
Frequently hilarious and consistently surprising, rigged with spring-loaded narrative bombs from its opening scene to its devastating final shot, full of exaggerated characters and wry dialogue (“…if someone could bottle this air, they’d make a million dollars”), anchored to a way of looking at the world that seems to posit a fundamental absence of meaning, A Serious Man is rich with ideas and contemplations and packed with the sort of savagely existential jokes that tickle the Coen boys’ unique funny bone.
In fact, it is a work of comic genius crueler than No Country for Old Men. Underlying the humour is a vision so bleak, so despairing, and so utterly hopeless as to make Anton Chigurh’s madcap, blood-drenched expedition of vengeance through the Texas desert almost look cheerful by comparison. Combine suburban alienation, philosophical inquiry, moral seriousness, dope, and a mixture of respect for and indifference to Torah, and you get one of the most remarkable oeuvres in modern film. A Serious Man provides the final piece of the puzzle that is the Coens. It’s cathartic to see the brothers finally show you a bit more of who they are, and where they came from.
A pitch-perfect comedy of errors, discomfort, and despair, deeply compelling and hauntingly original, resolutely paced, impeccably staged and lensed by Roger Deakins (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), the Coens’ 14th feature is their most intensely Jewish film and, against the odds, one of their best, most insightful, most provocative, and most universal as well.
A Serious Man is a distilled, hyperbolic account of the human condition, a comedy for people who can chuckle at car wrecks, obtuse rabbis, mysterious messages, and endlessly drained cysts. It’s hard to love a movie that makes you feel anxious and miserable; it’s impossible not to respect one that has that kind of power.
When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, you better find somebody to love. Man plans, God laughs, and so do the Coens. Embrace the mystery.