This review was originally written in 2009 for a blog I kept called Total Cinema.
A Serious Man, the latest offering from film-making brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, presents us with their truest representation of the universe we live in: completely unpredictable, and occupied with exaggerated stereotypes of Jewish suburbanites that still manage to be compelling human characters. Alongside this theme of an ordered existence in a chaotic world, the Coens draw upon The Book of Job and their Jewish upbringing to create a darkly comic tragedy about physics professor Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose life and faith unravel over the course of the film.
Set in Minnesota during the ’60s, we are introduced to Larry ostensibly in the prime of his life: he has a wife, a daughter, a son whose bar mitzvah is approaching, and his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) sleeping on the couch; he has a house in the suburbs and his application for tenure is undergoing review. All of these things, however, are revealed as imperfect: Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolf) smokes marijuana and is being hounded by a classmate for money; his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) steals from his wallet, and is a generally unpleasant person; and his troubled brother is afflicted with a repulsive physical ailment that keeps him from socializing – or finding his own apartment. Larry lives in an inattentive bliss that is rudely interrupted when a student attempts to bribe him for a passing grade, and his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) tells him that she’s leaving him for family friend Sy Abbelman (Fred Melamed). Larry is put through the wringer, obviously manipulated by a malignant force (God, or the Coen brothers?) that tears down his comfortable world, piece by piece, causing Larry to seek counsel from three rabbis. Their advice is in turn inept, meaningless, and, in the wise old Marshak (Alan Mandell) refuses to even speak; he is forced by circumstances to make his own decisions concerning personal ethics and his faith in Hashem (“The Name”). Larry’s downward spiral continues, forcing the viewer into a sadistic role where he is forced by the script to take pleasure in his pain, and ending on a truly ominous note with no denouement in sight.
The Coens’ films share common concepts, of an unpredictable universe, the breaking point of personal ethics and faith, and the consequences thereof; all of the Coen brothers’ films use the core idea of a chaotic universe to propel their various plots (see: Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski, Fargo). Despite being extrapolation on concepts that any fan of the Coen brothers is now familiar with, A Serious Man feels like the most personal film the brothers have made. The personal aspect comes from the setting of suburban Minnesota during the ’60s, and the Jewish tradition and folklore inundating the film’s entire mise-en-scene. The character Larry Gropnik is played with a simple, deadpan aplomb by theatre actor Stuhlbarg, and Joel and Ethan Coen’s humanistic handling of familiar concepts in their standard dark comedy format make A Serious Man their most mature film yet.