By: Monika Bartyzel, reprinted from the Toronto International Film Festival 9/12/09
This is the dark comedy that Joel and Ethan Coen have been working towards. A Serious Man is the culmination of their lives, reminiscent both of their own suburban childhoods in the '60s, and of their cinematic successes over the last twenty-five years. It grabs the magic of local flavor and charm we saw in Fargo with a cast widely filled with unknown names (that pack as much of a cinematic punch as any star-studded roster you can think of), to the rapidly escalating drama of Burn After Reading. A Serious Man is cohesive and slick from stem to stern. It's serious about the craft of storytelling, both in form and function, with a dedication to characterization, pitch-perfect performances, and a cinematic backdrop that is both severely nostalgic and completely immersive.
In many ways, A Serious Man is a modern-day Candide. But rather than a hapless hero who is continually undaunted by the neverending drama that plagues him, the Coens' hero isn't a ray of sunshine. Larry Gopnik (perfectly embodied by renowned stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg) is a man utterly at a loss to explain his life's severe turn for the worse; he is a man desperate for answers. The classic Candide optimism shines down in the form of the rabbis he consults with as he tries to make sense of things. But rather than sage advice, they deliver wholly inadequate responses to life's trauma that don't speak at all to the nature of Larry's life.
And Larry's life is falling apart. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) informs him that they need to get a spiritual divorce (a "get") so that she can marry Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). The two carry on in front of Larry as an utterly condescending pair, controlling matters for their own benefit – although Sy masks it with the big hugs and hand-stroking of a man who "cares." Meanwhile, Larry's daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is stealing from his wallet to save up for a nose job, and his son Danny (Aaron Wolf) is stealing from her to try and pay back the local drug dealer who wants to break his neck. To make matters worse, Larry's brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has become perfectly content to monopolize the bathroom with his neck-cyst draining and sleep on the family couch without looking for a job. And the bad luck extends well beyond the home. Larry is a professor at the local university and is finally up for tenure, but a string of anonymously articulate complaints and an Asian student who wants to bribe his way to a better grade could make it all fall apart.
Cinematic journeys often demand compromises. You must wait for the action, wait for the moments to unfold, and be happy with the slow and steady progress leading to that result – a sort of cinematic purgatory before the "good stuff." But there is no compromise for A Serious Man. From the seemingly disparate opening, set in a Polish stetl (Jewish village) a hundred years before where a hard-working couple face an eerie dybbuk (evil spirit), to the bright humdrum of suburban life in 1967 as Larry Gopnik makes each step of his plagued life, it's all interesting, well-played, and engaging.
It is also 100% Jewish while also being 100% everyday life. Yes, there are stetls, gets, bar mitzvahs, and rabbis galore, which can definitely leave us goys a bit in the dark (much like Larry), but each aspect also speaks to a real life that extends well beyond any sort of cultural barrier. We might not hold a Torah or go to Hebrew school, but we can completely relate to Larry's woeful desperation, Danny's hidden earplug pounding Jefferson Airplane and "Somebody to Love" during boring classes, and even the disdain that drips from Judith as she looks and speaks to Larry. He might be the bumbling hero of this piece, and ooze sincerity, but it's quite obvious that he's so very far from perfect. This leads to the question of whether Larry's crumbling life is nothing more than a result of his own inadequacies and cluelessness.
But that's really not the point. This film isn't about the answers. A Serious Man is as much about our current nature and society as it is about a nostalgic '60s. Especially with the wildly rampant use of the Internet, we demand everything right now – from immediate satisfaction to immediate answers. We're obsessed not with the journey, but with the final line – the resolution, the bow that ties things up. Likewise, Larry is narrowly focused on the spiritual rationale for his life's collapse, the big all-encompassing reason, rather than examining the existential journey that brought him there. The Coens aren't the sort of filmmakers to give us the perfectly wrapped solution, and there's no better example of this than A Serious Man. That's the whole point. This film speaks as much with its structure as it does with its dialog.
But let's be clear – this film is interesting for more than just its craft. It's wildly funny, which is necessary when infusing Jewish customs and religion with the power of Grace Slick belting out "Somebody to Love" (and less-obviously, "Today"). Coens' classic absurdity is there, it's just in a more well-crafted package than last year's Burn After Reading (which was wildly enjoyable, but not thought-provoking). Best of all – in a film about one man's utter misery, a series of bad luck that never seems to end – A Serious Man never falls into that world of discomfort that distracts from the experience. The pangs are there, but the Coens know how to ease the sting.
I wish I could say this will be a blockbuster, but its delivery, while perfect for the story, won't be wholly irresistible to the world at large. But if they can get even a few converts to more well-crafted fare, I'll be happy.