The Coen brothers have a new movie. And if you like movies, then surely you like the Coen brothers. They’ve made some of the best, freshest, and most clever and memorable films of the last 25 years. Films like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy, and their 2007 Best Picture-winner No Country for Old Men have illustrated their uncanny prowess for bouncing between and even blending classic Hollywood genres like films noir, screwball comedies, hardboiled crime thrillers, and more. And now, their newest concoction, titled A Serious Man, is perhaps the most unique and unabashedly strange picture of their entire career. And it’s pretty damn great.
The best way I know how to describe A Serious Man is to say that it’s a very funny, very Jewish (very, very Jewish) take on No Country for Old Men. And if you’ve seen No Country and have no idea what to make of that statement, then that’s all the better.
It bears that unmistakably Coen-esque similarity to all of their previous work, however the tone, the themes, the weight of the whole product, is most akin specifically to the Coens’ 2007 Best Picture-winning thriller, which for my money, was their most unique film up until now.
When considering my minimal brain capacity and pathetic command of the English language, I don’t know if my words can do A Serious Man justice, especially having seen it only once as of this writing (it’s at least a two-times kind of movie). It’s such a thick movie, comprised of the perils of morality, marriage, faith, helplessness, adulthood, parking lots, dental anomalies, and very bad weather, and it’ll surely lodge Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” into the deepest coils of your brain for days on end. Well, perhaps that is some form of proper justice—surely it’s got you interested?—but there’s still so much more to it that makes it such a terrific achievement.
Take, for instance, our hero(?) of the film, Larry Gopnik, played by a mostly unknown actor by the name of Michael Stuhlbarg, who—God willing—is going to be huge after his Oscar nomination (and win??) for this movie.
By the way, when the most recognizable face in your film is that of Richard Kind, you know you’re working with an obscure—albeit in this case perfect—cast.
Larry’s constant plight throughout the film is Biblically rooted, based loosely on the Book of Job, which I regret that I’m mostly unfamiliar with, save for its references in Brian De Palma’s first Mission: Impossible movie. I know, I know…I’m a bad person.
Larry, a 1960s-era Jewish math professor and patriarch of a family of four, certainly has to be one of my favorite Coen brothers characters ever. He’s fascinating to watch and he’s just so genuinely confused and helpless as his whole life, quite unexpectedly, falls apart around him.
He thought his job was going quite well, but now anonymous letters to the board are demanding that he not be granted tenure, and a South Korean student named Clive (David Kang) is trying to bribe/threaten him for a passing grade. He thought his marriage was solid, but now his wife (Sari Lennick) wants a get (ritual divorce) to remarry an overly sensitive yet coyly manipulative longtime family friend (Fred Melamed).
His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is running into trouble with the law, his son Danny (Aaron Wolff), whose bar mitzvah is just around the corner, is smoking pot and watching too much F-Troop, and his anti-Semitic hunting-enthused alpha-male neighbors keep mowing over the property line.
All of these things—and the way that Larry has to deal with them, all the while clinging to his well-kept moral code—are essentially what the movie is about. Amid it all, as one might imagine, he has a rough time maintaining his sanity. When he tries to go see Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner) for guidance, he is instead handed off to Junior Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), who is of no help. When he finally does see Rabbi Nachtner, he is of even less help. Ultimately, when he’s reached his breaking point and takes a step to go to the elderly Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), he can’t even get through the door. There’s no help to be given save for the help he can give himself…if there’s even any of that.
And I can say this about very few movies—not even some of my all-time favorites—but when I could sense that A Serious Man was probably about to wrap things up, I wasn’t ready for it to. The only other movie I can remember feeling that way about was the first time I saw Fargo. Coincidence? I have to doubt it.
And I know I mentioned it before, but it must be stated again: Michael Stuhlbarg is fantastic in this movie and he will surely get an Oscar nomination for his work. He takes a character that could have so easily been a pathetic whiny loser who simply allows for all of this awful stuff to happen to him, and he makes him someone interesting and complicated and genuinely worth rooting for. It’s a perfect bit of casting, bold on the part of the brothers Coen, and I couldn’t love it more.
And as far as the Coens’ work goes, A Serious Man is an expertly made film, one of their very best, which is saying a lot. It’s so fascinatingly crafted, book-ended, and wonderfully directed. It’s damn near movie heaven to watch how the Coens elevate simple repetitions to an art form, perfectly creating the pulsating, ever-growing siren of the worries and anxieties which weigh most intensely upon you. It’s impossible to watch this film and not marvel at how unbelievably talented these filmmakers are.
And speaking of which, it’s also nice to see the Coens back in the capable hands of their usual director of photography, the wonderful Roger Deakins. Deakins was unable to shoot their previous film, last year’s Burn After Reading, which itself was shot quite capably by Emmanuel Lubezki, who did amazing work on Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. However, for lack of a better way of putting it, A Serious Man is back to looking like a Coen brothers movie, and there’s something very comforting about that.
This film veers in a different direction than a lot of the stuff we’re used to seeing from them. Having typically hopped between serio-comic crime thrillers and screwball farces, they’ve now fashioned their very own bleak, dreary, depressing suburban nightmare dramedy.
I saw somewhere where it had been referred to as “a Jewish American Beauty,” which I guess has some merit, but I still stand by it as being most comparable to No Country for Old Men. With all of the relentless gloom (but funny gloom, I swear!), and the poor individuals struggling against it, it’s not hard to see that it subscribes to the same “You can’t stop what’s coming” philosophy that they explored in No Country.
In fact, the ending of this film bears many a similarity to that of No Country and you can take that to be a good or bad thing depending on how you felt about how that film closed its curtains. However, for those that might protest the open ends of A Serious Man, the Coens at least have the courtesy to offer up a fitting piece of advice, straight from Rashi, to enhance your viewing pleasure: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Or as Clive’s intimidating father would say, “Accept the mystery.”