"I feel like the carpet's been yanked out from under me."
One thing's for certain: no-one could ever accuse Joel and Ethan Coen of selling out. After the duo achieved perhaps their greatest critical success with No Country for Old Men (for which they collected multiple well-earned Oscars) immediately followed by the box office triumph of Burn After Reading, they've created one of their most befuddling pictures to date. 2009's A Serious Man is a Coen-esque, oddball mixture of black humour and dramatic pathos told from a profoundly Jewish perspective, which simultaneously highlights the film's deep Old Testament roots and offers a unique cultural backdrop rarely seen in Hollywood films. Many critics have highlighted the ostensibly personal nature of A Serious Man, but the Coens (who aren't devout Jews by any means) seem to have just once again selected a specific area of American culture and skewered it to death - and for this venture it just happens to hit a little closer to home.
A Serious Man is essentially a contemporary re-enactment of the Book of Job which transpires in suburban Minnesota during the late 1960s. Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) is married, has kids, and holds down a good job, but he becomes trapped in misery: he's up for tenure but anonymous letters are being submitted urging the committee to deny him, his wife is leaving him for a mutual friend (for vague reasons), a frantic Korean student is trying to bribe his way out of a failing grade (then tries to blackmail him for supposedly accepting the bribe), his brother is lost in depression, and his offspring are predominantly disinterested in him (the only thing his son wants is for Larry to fix the TV aerial so that he can watch F-Troop clearly). As the strands of his life begin to unravel, Larry is left to question whether he's been a good man or a serious man, and whether God is even paying attention.
What Larry is unable to understand is why God would force someone who follows all the rules of decency to suffer so much while others seem to get away with anything they want. The Coens present Larry's dilemma without offering any solutions; suggesting that when life gets tough, one has little recourse but to stand firm and take it. Moreover, Larry seeks an answer to explain the troubles suddenly befalling his life by visiting several rabbis. In every case, however, they merely speak in aphorisms and metaphors, and generally beat around the issue without every getting to the heart of it. And this is precisely the point, of course - the Coens don't shy away from the interpretation that it may all mean nothing. The answer Larry seeks is nonexistent because to answer the question of human suffering would be to forever close the gap between humankind and the eternal. It's due to this that the best answer he receives is one he never recognises as such: "Accept mystery". Perhaps if Larry had heard the Hebrew proverb that prefaces the film - "Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you" - the words might have given him solace in his time of need.
An ode to Midwestern Judaism and the havoc of guilt, the Coen Brothers have woven together a truly masterful tapestry of neuroses and personal damage, intercut with enough black humour to alleviate the pervasive dread. By this stage in their career, Joel & Ethan Coen have perfected the art of quirkiness without contrivance. For each new film, they construct their own bizarre universe governed by chance and indifference to the well-being of its inhabitants, while the characters that are subjected to the whims of this dimension are charged with finding a way through it. Like most Coen productions, A Serious Man is inscrutable and challenging, which is most evident during the opening scene: a parable entirely in Yiddish about a husband who invites over to dinner a man who may or may not be a ghost. This parable's relation to the main story is tenuous, but it acts as a nice introduction to this world.
The direction by the Coens is pitch-perfect - it transforms material which could have easily been painful in the hands of others into a hilariously discomforting and mordant comedy. A Serious Man also benefits from remarkable performances from the mostly unknown cast (this is not the type of film that would benefit from the presence of George Clooney). Due to stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg's big-screen anonymity, a viewer can concentrate entirely on the character rather than the actor, and the result is a sensitive, riveting performance. Alongside Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed is particularly hysterical; he plays a man who cuckolds Larry, and insists on making it up to him with a bottle of wine that he uses as a metaphor for justifying his behaviour. If there's a flaw with A Serious Man, it's the inclusion of oddball divergences that don't have a compelling reason to exist...other than self-indulgence.
Each Coen Brothers production has an immediate, distinct and memorable visual impact (from the snowscape of Fargo to the scorching desert of No Country for Old Men), and this is unchanged here. Technically and artistically, A Serious Man is pure class; capturing the mid-Western Jewish enclave of the '60s with realistic period recreation and comic exaggeration. The neighbourhood in which Larry resides is an immaculate evocation of the suburban neighbourhoods that existed across America in the '50s and '60s (with the widely separated, flattened houses, narrow driveways, and treeless yards). Roger Deakins' exceptional cinematography brings out the right notes of alienation from the expanses of blue-sky suburbia, while further menace is added by Carter Burwell's score and the ominous sound design. That this technical excellence was achieved on a $7 million budget is a miracle.
While A Serious Man is very funny, it's far removed from mainstream cinema, and wouldn't have had a chance in hell of getting made without the Coen Brothers having earned the right. This is largely because the ending (like the beginning) feels random and unsettling; playing out like a spiteful poke in the eye to those who disliked the ambiguity of the final scene of No Country for Old Men. The ending may not bode well for reliable box office, but it stays true to the film's overall tone; reminding viewers that the journey doesn't end just because things are starting to look up. One of the primary themes the film tackles is the randomness of existence and the futility of figuring everything out through mathematical formulas, thus the apparent abruptness of the ending appears to highlight this theme. It also allows plenty of latitude for interpretation. A Serious Man is cinema at its best, leaving your mind in motion long after the credits have rolled.
A Serious Man manages to be at once laugh-out-loud funny and deeply serious. It's also simultaneously troubling and satisfying, warm and bleak, and respectful of its Jewish heritage while mocking its restrictions and false comforts. This is undoubtedly one of the best films the Coens have made to date, and it reconfirms that they are among the most daring and audacious filmmakers currently working in the movie industry, though it's doubtful this film will catch on with a mass audience.