For a filmmaker, or artist in general, it seems to be an unwritten rule that once youâ€™ve reached success in your career, you must revisit your childhood and dissect the environment that formed your personality. Sometimes these endeavors are dark and mysterious, sometimes they are comical and reminiscent, and sometimes they subvert the entire belief system one was raised upon. In the Coen Brothers latest film A Serious Man, an exploration of their Jewish upbringing in Minnesota, they manage to do all of the above.
No doubt, A Serious Man has joined the ranks of the Coensâ€™ previous films O Brother, Where Art Thou, Barton Fink, and Fargo as one of their funniest films ever. The black comedy addresses some of lifeâ€™s most difficult questions in the unique style of the Brothers â€“ symbols are everywhere, but meaningless, the characters are incredibly self-indulgent, and life is naught but pain, misery and then onto the next thing.
All of the Coen Brothers films deal with human misery in some form or another, but this time they address it directly in an intensely personal (and funny) way. This film for the Coens is like Bergmanâ€™s religious trilogy in that it explores the mysticism of their religion and questions the presence of God. The Coens maintain a very pessimistic view of religion and after witnessing the life of the Gopniks â€“ a miserable Jewish family in Minnesota â€“ it is easy to understand why.
The head of the Gopnik household is the filmâ€™s protagonist â€“ a community college professor named Larry. Larryâ€™s life is slowly falling apart as his tenure is up in the air, his racist neighbor is moving in on his lawn, and his wife has just announced that she is leaving him (or rather she is forcing him to leave her). His unemployed brother, Arthur, is squatting at Larryâ€™s home and escalating the conflict in Larryâ€™s family as he struggles with gambling and continually drains his cyst at inappropriate times. Larry spends all of his days teaching physics formulas that prove that there is no point to anything in life.
In the film Larry meets with a Rabbi who tells him the story of a dentist who discovered Hebrew writing on the teeth of one of his patients. The dentist goes on a wild exhibition to discover what the words mean and ends up learning nothing. That scene is an excellent microcosm for the theme of the film. Larry is on his own search for the meaning of life, but, in true Jewish fashion, learns that it is nothing but guilt and hard ships that never end.
The Coens brilliantly assemble the narrative structure as a kind of maze with no clear path. The film is full of symbolism that intentionally has no meaning. Arthur discovers a mathematical code that could make him a millionaire, but it is morally wrong so he doesnâ€™t pursue. Larry and his wifeâ€™s love interest, Sy Ableman, get into simultaneous car accidents at different locations, but it doesnâ€™t mean they are cosmically connected. Despite being symbolically meaningless, moments like these are fantastically introspective and paint a portrait of the necessary pointlessness of human existence.
The Coens have always emphasized the imperfections in humankind. Usually their protagonists are unattractive everymen (except in No Country for Old Men where Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem had a brooding sexiness that even a straight man like me canâ€™t deny). In A Serious Man they really go all out to emphasize the imperfections in the human physique. The elderly characters are zoomed in on to show their wrinkles in detail; they increase the audio volume on grotesque bodily noises (chewing, coughing, stomachs gurgling, etc.); and the characters have a lot of visible body hair. In a sense, the Coens rebel against the established Hollywood image in order to show that humans arenâ€™t beautiful and by proxy, neither is life.
Michael Stuhlbarg delivers a fantastic lead performance as Professor Larry Gopnik â€“ his awkward stroll, his nervous stutters, and his random assembly of sentences makes him lovable in every frame. Another surprisingly great performance comes from Richard Kind as the painfully awkward brother Arthur. His breakdown scene is one of the best acting moments in the film for both Kind and Stuhlbarg.
I also have to give a shout out and words of praise to the Minnesota actors who make up the ensemble cast. For many of them it was their feature film debut, but you wouldnâ€™t know it. Particularly hilarious performances are delivered by Minnesotans Sari Lennick as Judith Gopnick and Aaron Wolfe as Danny Gopnick. Way to demonstrate the excellence of the local Minnesota acting scene.
Iâ€™m not Jewish and I grew up in the 90s, so I canâ€™t purport to having experienced the same upbringing as the Coens. However, this film still spoke to me on a personal level. We are all on a quest for spiritual meaning and that search (for me, and no doubt many of you) has often felt as hopeless and painful as the life of Larry Gopnik.
Bottom Line: A Serious Man is my favorite movie of the year so far and it absolutely deserves to be seen by anybody who wants a humorous take on the search for truth.