It might be a little too subtle for mainstream tastes, pretentious and initially unsatisfying in a way the Coen Brothers haven’t really played around with since Barton Fink (though they certainly flirted with in No Country for Old Men). But there’s great comedy in great tragedy, and the Coens mine it wonderfully in A Serious Man: it’s as funny as a pitch-black comedy can be.
A Serious Man centers on college professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his suburban family. Wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce; she’s seeing another man, the disturbingly soothing Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who wants to peacefully resolve things.
Brother Arthur (Richard Kind), homeless and jobless, sleeps on the couch and fills a journal with nonsense. Son Danny (Aaron Wolff) owes a bully $20 for marijuana and has his radio confiscated by a teacher.
Larry frequently runs into troubles. A South Korean student demands a failing grade be changed. An anonymous source threatens his application tenure. Danny joins Columbia House and sticks his father with the bill. The neighbors keep mowing over the property line. And on and on – it never ends. Life.
The key to A Serious Man in the Schrödinger’s cat paradox – the famous cat in the box that is simultaneously dead and alive – which Larry teaches his students, and two lengthy open-ended vignettes. The second comes halfway through the film, when a rabbi tells him the story of a dentist who discovered a message on the inside of a patient’s teeth. What does it mean? No answers, only a search, and then contentment after giving up.
The first opens the film: a Hebrew-language, black&white 4×3 sequence that features a man returning to his wife having received a ride home from a man the wife claims died three years ago.
He’s a dybbuk, the wife claims, and stabs him. Was he? The wife thinks so, the husband thinks she’s just committed murder. The truth might well be known eventually, but the scene ends here, and the audience is kept in the dark.
“We can’t know everything,” the rabbi tells Larry. “It sounds like you don’t know anything!” Something like that; no answers, only questions. This is a highly watchable (and re-watchable) film, carefully shot and composed, drawn from deep Jewish roots (and, I think, personal notes from the Coen’s youth) but engaging and relatable to most viewers willing to give it a chance.
Stuhlbarg is pitch-perfect as the put-upon lead, with wonderful comic timing and an initial Buster Keaton deadpan that suddenly (and frequently) turns into a look of incredulous horror: “Sy Ableman!?” The rest of the cast – few familiar faces, unusual for a Coen Bros. movie – is similarly wonderful, uniquely filling the screen in a way that would make Fellini proud.
Upon an initial viewing, I wasn’t convinced by A Serious Man. It’s highly watchable, but challenging and somewhat unsatisfying, in that Coen Brothers kind of way – the climax of No Country for Old Men being a prime example, the whole of Barton Fink another.
Repeat viewings and a closer eye on the themes pushed me over: this is a darkly comic masterpiece that I rate next to Blood Simple, Fargo, and No Country as the best the Coen’s have produced. Not that their others are far behind; 25 years and precisely one bad film (The Ladykillers) out of 15. Not a bad record.