A Serious Man
- Directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen
- Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed
- Classification: 14A
The latest from Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man is a seriously black comedy. Black, because affliction and angst abound. Comic, because this rampant bleakness is presented as nothing more than an amusing bauble. Tragedy is trite to all but the stricken, the film seems to be saying, so let's just sit back and do the only sane thing - laugh at life's trifling misfortunes, at least until the laugh's on us.
No doubt, the brothers in their recent outings appear intent on raising pessimism to an art form. In NoCountry for Old Men , humankind is its own worst enemy and the devil's work goes unpunished. In Burn AfterReading , our body of government proves just as sick, indifferent at best and incompetent the rest of the time. Here, God Himself is merely one big "uncertainty principle," and don't expect any help from His earthly emissaries. But surely such doom and gloom are just the dark side of life's balanced equation. Where's the beauty that is truth, or infant joy, or the balm of a summer afternoon? Well, the Coens shape their answer in the form of another question, and, repeated throughout like a mantra, it comes from a high priestess of pop: "When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies/ Don't you want somebody to love?"
Yes, all bow to Gracie Slick and the Jefferson Airplane - it's 1967, in a mid-western Jewish community loosely torn from the Coens' own childhood album. There, Larry Gopnik, a physics prof at the local university, is happily ensconced in the bosom of his family, sharing a comfy suburban home with his wife and two teenage children. Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a good man, a kind man, a contented man. But the times they are a'changin' fast. He's about to be transformed into a latter-day Job, beset on every side by an escalating dreck-storm of trials and calamities. Unlike his biblical equivalent, however, the guy has no sparring partner, no deity to argue with - it's just him and his ineffectual patience against a cruel, selfish, oblivious world.
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The black humour lies in watching just how indecently bad things can get for an essentially decent fellow. With their eye for ethnic detail and their ear for vicious dialogue, the Coens are awfully adroit at setting up the train wreck, making it look funny, and turning the audience into laughing rubberneckers. If this implicates us in the world's cruelty, that's surely part of the brothers' grand design - the laughter that is one man's best medicine is another's bitter brew.
So, with Gracie periodically belting out her anthem, the beat and the beating go on. It starts when Larry's "somebody to love" blithely announces that she's found somebody better to love. Wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants an immediate divorce, eager to trade up for the unctuous Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), an old and deliciously pompous windbag. Suddenly, Larry is booted out to a nearby motel, not that his kids notice or care. His son is too busy getting high on the demon weed, while his daughter divides her time between hogging the bathroom and pilfering his wallet - she's saving up for a nose job.
Nor are his neighbours neighbourly. On one side sits a rabid nest of anti-Semites; on the other, a literally naked temptation lurks in the shapely form of a bored housewife. Worse, Larry is perpetually obliged to be his brother's keeper, a tough job since his brother is an unemployed idiot savant growing less savant by the day. Meanwhile, over at the university, yet another collision looms - bearing false rumours, his train is wobbling off the tenure track.
As for professional help, lawyers pontificate, doctors misdiagnose and, in a hilarious trio of set pieces, rabbis spin elaborate parables rich in colour but entirely bereft of meaning. Admittedly, at times, the whole film threatens to devolve into a similar parable. Stuhlbarg, a Broadway actor new to the screen, is almost too credible as Larry, making him so pathetically passive that we root against the nebbish. After all, our fun is invested in watching him get his unjust desserts. And if he can't be loved, neither can his tormentors be hated - they're not so much blindly evil as blandly annoying.
That leaves us in limbo - laughing yes, but also wondering what to make of a film so simultaneously engaging and disengaging. Then again, that's precisely the Coens' intention. "Don't you want somebody to love?" Gracie asks, and A Serious Man replies, "Of course, stupid. But who? And why?" No wonder the apocalyptic ending comes as a relief, a comic relief where the bitterness goes down like bliss.