Stress is a killer. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another. When it rains, it pours. These are facts of life, which no one wants to experience, but will eventually come crashing down around them at one point. It seems like nothing is going right. Everywhere you turn something else occurs, compounding your inability to be comfortable. With each little thing, whether it being hot enough to make you sweat or a fly treating your arm like a landing strip, these are monumental events only working to fuel your fire of frustration. You curse the heavens, asking what it is you did to deserve such punishment, but hear no answer. Sometimes you didn’t do anything. It’s just happens. The absence of an answer doesn’t make it easier to take. This is the situation facing Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man and he finds it difficult to wade his way through it.
It’s 1967. Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor at a university. He is constantly bombarded with messages whenever he walks into his office, it’s a wonder he doesn’t just stay in his classroom all day. His most incessant pursuers are the Columbia Record Club (a company we’re no doubt familiar with in its current incarnations), requesting payment for the albums sent to him unwillingly, after his free introductory 12. Sy Abelman, a friend of the family, is another unrelenting persona, for reasons Larry would rather not know. When a young South Korean student walks into his office, he at least has an excuse to ignore the telephone. The student claims he received an unjust grade (an “F”) on his midterm and it would bring shame to his family if it remains. Larry assures the young man nothing can be done, but when the student leaves the office, he leaves behind an envelope full of 100s. Surely, anyone can be persuaded.
Larry’s home life isn’t the relaxing utopia one would desire after a hard day’s work. His unemployed brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), stays confined to the sole bathroom in the house, suctioning leaky fluid from the back of his neck. His teenage daughter steals money from his wallet in order to hang out with her friends. His son, who’s supposed to be preparing for his bar mitzvah, spends his time smoking weed and avoiding the big-boned neighbor who sold it to him without receiving payment. The crème-de-la-crème, however, is his relationship with his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick). The marriage is no longer viable and she wants a divorce, so she can marry Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed).
With his home and office life spiraling out of control, the foot continues to press down on Larry’s stress pedal. Sy Abelman is a calming presence, believing a sit-down talk with Larry and Judith can produce positive results. The man is impossible to get angry with, because he does his best to handle tense situations in a civil manner, even when he and Judith request Larry be the one to move out of the house he pays the mortgage on and relocate to a dingy motel in town. Any question Larry asks fails to produce an answer, so he seeks advice from the people at the top of his Jewish faith, the rabbis. What he soon discovers is not everything has a logical explanation.
The Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan), have been critical darlings for some time now, but their magnum opus, at least when viewed by the Academy, was 2007’s No Country for Old Men. No matter what they accomplish from then on will almost certainly attract mass attention, for better or worse. In A Serious Man, the Coens have made the film that hits closest to home. It takes place in Minnesota, where the brothers were born, set around the time they were both adolescents. Their father was a professor, like Larry, and it whole-heartedly revolves around the Jewish faith. However, they claim all the similarities between the film and the life they’ve lived end at those basic comparisons. The involvement of Judaism is the most key element in the film, and although accessible to an extent to everyone, one wonders if the film would be better appreciated by those in the know.
The brothers are indeed unlike many other filmmakers working today, in their penchant for risk-taking. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds immediately came to mind, as there are scenes and shots and sequences and moments nobody else would dare attempt. They are designed almost exclusively to keep the viewer on their toes. No one could possibly accuse the Coens of being predictable, which they may consider the greatest sin of all. However, unpredictability doesn’t necessarily equate to greatness. Uniqueness, sure. There are seemingly random events, which arise out of nowhere, only to disguise the story as building to some sort of crescendo. Sadly, the film meanders quite a bit, lacking the drive to compose a story completely compelling.
Credit must certainly be given to Coens for the cast of unknowns assembled, finding capable actors and extracting strong performances all-around. The two recognizable faces belong to Richard Kind’s (“Spin City”) Uncle Arthur and Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”) as Junior Rabbi Scott. However, they are but bit players to the commanding force of Michael Stuhlbarg. The character of Larry isn’t a strong-willed one. He’s quite meek and feeble, allowing himself to be taken advantage of by overbearing personalities, making it difficult to truly feel sorry for him, except that things continue to compile upon him. Stuhlbarg shows himself to be a likable lead, which hopefully gains him exposure for the future.
With A Serious Man, the Coen brothers have made a decidedly Coen-esque film, sitting somewhere between their last two efforts, No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading, in terms of tone. Fans may consider it a godsend, but although there are elements absolutely worthy of admiration, much like Larry’s plight, some things just don’t make sense. There’s a sense of pretension with this film the Coens feel they can possess, simply because of who they are. Sometimes confidence grows into arrogance, and they’d be better to come back down and join us for a bit.