Things are not going well for Larry Gopnik: His wife has asked him for a divorce so she can marry an old friend of theirs; his kids don’t respect him; he’s in danger of not getting tenure in his job as a physics professor; his son, who’s about to be bar mitzvahed, is a pothead; his deadbeat brother is sleeping on his couch; and one of his students is blackmailing him for better grades. And that’s just a quick overview of what Joel and Ethan Coen do to poor Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg), the protagonist of their excellent new film A Serious Man.
The Coens have always been cynical observers of the absurdity and unpleasantness of human nature, but over their last three films (No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading and now A Serious Man), the writer-directors have plunged deep into nihilism, telling stories in which, essentially, nothing turns out well for anyone, and whether we’re laughing (Burn After Reading), thrilling (No Country) or cringing (A Serious Man) at the way things play out, it’s all indicative of a deeply unforgiving worldview. No one gets brutally murdered in A Serious Man, but that doesn’t mean that life holds much promise for them.
On the surface at least, A Serious Man takes place in a more inviting, peaceful world than the Coens’ last two films: It’s suburban Minneapolis in 1967, the very environment from which the filmmakers themselves sprung, where Larry is an upstanding member of the Jewish community. Things that seem serene on the surface, though, are often mysterious and foreboding underneath, as the Coens remind us with a series of fables and fable-like tales throughout the film (which itself is structured a bit like a fable). The movie opens with the story, presented in Yiddish, of a couple of villagers who encounter a dybbuk, a sort of mystical Jewish zombie. Even Larry’s physics lesson to his students is presented in the form of a story. To deal with his myriad problems, Larry visits three rabbis, each of whom warrants his own title card. Two speak in meaningless riddles (one telling Larry another fable, this one about a dental patient with Hebrew lettering engraved on his teeth), while the third refuses to see Larry altogether.
As Larry reaches out for help to the God that defines his cultural community, he’s continually denied any sort of relief, either spiritual or financial or sexual (his comely neighbor sunbathes nude, but Larry only beds her in his dreams). Throughout, Stuhlbarg, an accomplished stage actor, portrays Larry’s helplessness and frustration with just the right balance of empathy and disgust, complementing the Coens’ typically jaundiced view toward the world and all the people in it. None of the brothers’ usual players show up onscreen here, and very few of the movie’s faces are recognizable at all. This gives A Serious Man a real sense of immersion in its milieu, and while the characters and situations are typically exaggerated and grotesque, they’re also somehow more human than anything the filmmakers have created in quite some time.
Despite grappling with issues of faith, morality and tradition, A Serious Man is also full of dark humor, and those on the Coens’ jaded wavelength will find plenty of amusement in Larry’s escalating troubles. Bitter laughter may be the only reasonable response to this movie’s world, and that itself is something pretty damn serious.