Posted: 10/09/2009


A Serious Man


by Matt Fagerholm

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“Report back to me when it makes sense.”
—CIA Superior (J.K. Simmons) in Burn After Reading

As the lights dimmed at the Chicago press screening of Joel and Ethan Coen’s fourteenth feature film, a fellow critic excitedly shifted in his seat and whispered, “It’s like Christmas!” I know exactly what he means. Film lovers await the new Coen Brothers picture with the same rabid anticipation mainstream audiences reserve for Michael Bay blockbusters. That’s because there isn’t a single frame, sound or beat in any of their pictures that feels like it’s there by accident. When you watch one of their cinematic marvels, you know you’re in the hands of master storytellers. Even their most trivial films, such as Burn After Reading, offer more for the viewer to chew on than most American films. A Serious Man finds the brothers back at the top of their game, in what is certainly one of their most fascinating and personal films to date. The instant it ended, I knew I had to see it again.

It’s a refreshing departure from Burn, which got its comic mileage out of having big stars play against type. It was funny, but also a consistent distraction. In A Serious Man, there are hardly any recognizable faces onscreen. It is set in the time and place where the Coens grew up: St. Louis Park, Minn., 1967. Their parents were both professors, just like Larry Gopnik, the “hero” of their story. Larry is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, a Tony-Award nominated actor who may only be familiar to Broadway audiences. The rest of the cast primarily consists of local actors from Minneapolis, along with a handful of veteran character actors such as Richard Kind and Michael Lerner. It’s a joy to watch so many fresh faces effortlessly disappear into such richly textured characters.

This is also the Coens’ first film to delve deeply into their Jewish upbringing, and the complexities of the theology itself (I suggest a rabbi commentary on the DVD). The pre-title sequence is entirely in Yiddish, and tells a seemingly unrelated folk tale about questionable misdeeds and the threat of curses. The film then shifts to one of its most deeply intriguing sequences, intercutting the actions of schoolboy Danny (Aaron Wolff) and his father Larry (Stuhlbarg). As Danny secretly listens to a portable radio in class, a doctor peers into Larry’s ear. This edit would normally seem like a cause and a effect: listening to blaring music through an earpiece would naturally lead to hearing loss. But that would only make sense if both scenarios involved the same person, first at a younger age and then older. Since they involve father and son, the sequence becomes enticingly ambiguous, and effectively sets the mood for a film about intwining fates, impending doom and the seeming absence of a higher (or holy) order.

Larry’s story has been widely compared to the Old Testament Book of Job, where God tested a faithful man by putting him through various trials and tribulations. Though Larry is a thoroughly decent man, he’s not particularly religious, and his complacency has led him to overlook the growing problems in his life. Suddenly, everything erupts: his wife wants a leave him for a man she considers more “serious,” his job as a physics professor is threatened by an apparent bribe and anonymous accusations, his children and brother are getting into all sorts of trouble, and his seductive next-door neighbor torments him by sunbathing in the nude. In desperation, Larry delves into the “well of tradition” provided by his faith, with the hope that he may be able to figure out why all these horrible things are happening to him. But he soon realizes that no one, not even the holiest of rabbis, can truly hold the secret to life’s mysteries, however unfair or bleak they may be.

With such profound and unsettling themes, it’s a wonder how uproariously funny this film manages to be. Like all Coen comedies, it’s largely a dark satire on Midwestern passive aggression, where people strain to conceal their inner feelings under a sunny mask of excruciating politeness. Yet unlike Fargo, where good ultimately prevailed in the incomparable form of Marge Gunderson, the Coens have become far more pessimistic in their recent work (much like Woody Allen), with increasingly stark portraits of a universe that feeds its most sympathetic and well-meaning souls through the proverbial wood chipper. As Larry, Stuhlbarg succeeds at the profoundly difficult task of mining the humor in his tragic character without ever condescending to him. It’s a brilliant performance, surrounded by a uniformly excellent cast. As the amiably self-righteous Sy Ableman, Fred Melamed is a mesmerizing cross between Noel Coward and a boa constrictor. Simon Helberg earns some of the film’s biggest laughs as a cheery young rabbi, while George Wyner (as another rabbi) delivers a hilarious extended monologue to Larry, detailing a baffling story with no satisfying conclusion (much like the film itself).

I can’t quite call A Serious Man a flat-out masterpiece until I’ve had the chance to see it at least once or twice more, but it is easily one of the best films from the great filmmaking duo. Expect Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” to linger in your head much like “It’s the Same Old Song” did in their debut Blood Simple, and prepare for an ending as audacious and open-ended as the final fade out in No Country For Old Men. In the end, life seems as strange and as incomprehensible as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle that Larry struggles to explain to his bewildered class. All the viewer can do is shudder..and laugh because, in the words of Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff in No Country, “there ain’t a whole lot else you can do.”

Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.

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