Set in a flat, treeless Minnesota suburb in the late 1960s, A Serious Man is Joel and Ethan Coen's darkly comic version of the story of Job, an at times sublime cinematic exploration of the inscrutable nature of earthly suffering and possibly the best mainstream treatment of that subject since Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Like that film (which also happens to be the last genuinely great film by the Woodman--let's hope the same fate does not befall the Coens, who seem to be on a roll), A Serious Man uses a deft mixture of humor and dramatic pathos and is told from a profoundly Jewish perspective, which both underscores the film's deep Old Testament roots and provides a unique cultural backdrop that is rarely given any screen time in Hollywood films (seriously--when was the last time you saw characters on a bus going to Hebrew school?). The fact that some critics have taken the Coens to task for flaunting Jewish stereotypes also tend to be the critics who castigate them for their supposed condescension toward their characters, and both criticisms ultimately rely on emotional distance from what happens in the film, which the Coens never quite allow.
The everymensch hero of A Serious Man is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), an absolutely ordinary and generally well-meaning middle-aged husband and father of two who is within a week of earning tenure at the university where he teaches physics. His life begins to unravel first when his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces that she wants a divorce. Her reasoning is vague and utterly unemotional, which leaves Larry stunned, as does her announcement that she has become "close" with their mutual friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), an imposing widower whose emotional cruelty comes neatly wrapped in overly soft geniality and unwelcome hugs. Although hardly an unmitigated disaster, Larry's homelife was already rife with gradually escalating trouble, including a teenager daughter (Jessica McManus) who steals money from his wallet to finance her nose job; an adolescent son (Aaron Wolff) who is constantly on the run from a teenage pot dealer to whom he owes money; and his useless brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who has been sleeping on the couch for who-knows-how-long and may be involved in illegal gambling. Further trouble begins brewing on campus when Larry's department chair starts receiving anonymous letters accusing him of "moral turpitude" and one of his students (David Kang) first tries to bribe him to pass him on a test and then tries to blackmail him for supposedly accepting the bribe.
Like the best of the Coen Brothers' previous films, particularly Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007), A Serious Man is uniquely situated in its time and place, which is both deeply grounded in historical veracity and yet slightly exaggerated. The neighborhood in which Larry lives (until his wife sends him to a motel, that is) is a perfect evocation of the new suburban neighborhoods that sprung up across the United States in the 1950s and '60s, with their widely separated, flattened modern houses, narrow driveways, and treeless yards. The very openness of the space, which the Coens emphasize time and time again with high, wide shots, quickly feels both suffocating and distancing, a fact that is underscored by Larry's tenuous relationship with his immediate neighbors: a monosyllabic redneck goy (Peter Breitmayer) on one side and a high sexualized housewife taking advantage of the "new freedoms" (Amy Landecker) on the other. The fact that the majority of the characters are Jewish and see themselves as inhabiting a kind of enclave in the predominantly protestant Midwest also gives the film a unique flavor as well as plenty of opportunities for the Coens to riff on the ethnic eccentricities they witnessed growing up in precisely such an environment (not surprisingly, the film is highly autobiographical, at least in the cultural and historical details).
The details, however, are just that: Details. What makes A Serious Man stand out as more than just a clever evocation of time and place is the Coens' very serious interrogation of the ages-old question that humankind has always placed before God: Why do bad things happen to good people? To describe the film as a heavy heaping of misery on poor Larry's narrow shoulders would be an understatement, and the fact that even his dreams are tormented gives the film a Biblical intensity of purpose. The Coens build the existential tension slowly and steadily, starting with the film's unlikely prologue, which takes place in a 19th-century Polish village and establishes the story's fundamental interplay of the rational and the fantastical, the explainable and the mysterious. At times it is darkly humorous, but at other points the story genuinely unnerves. Thus, even in the banal setting of late-1960s suburbia, everything in the film is tinged with the spiritual, which is powerfully evoked via the repeated use of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" with its powerfully disarming opening lyrics "When the truth is found to be lies / And all of the joy in you dies." Never have Grace Slick's unique cadences sounded so eerie and soul-rattling, especially following the film's stunning final image.
With increasing desperation, Larry seeks out several different rabbis, hoping that they can supply him with answers to explain everything that is suddenly befalling his life. But, they speak in metaphors and aphorisms and generally beat around the issue without getting to the heart of it. But that, of course, is precisely the point. The answer Larry seeks doesn't exist because to answer the question of human suffering would be to forever close the gap between humankind and the eternal, which is why the best answer he gets is one he doesn't even recognize as such: "Accept the mystery."
Copyright 2009 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright Focus Features
Overall Rating: (4)
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