If in 2005, you’d asked me about the importance of the Coen brothers to the world of film, I probably would have sadly reported that they might have been on the road to irrelevance. After all, their 2004 remake of The Ladykillers was not well received, nor was their previous film Intolerable Cruelty. Even the films they made earlier in the decade like The Man Who Wasn’t There and O Brother Where Art Thou? were by no means unmitigated triumphs. What a difference two years make. In the last two years the Coens have not only reclaimed their crown as American masters but have gone a step further. With their 2007 Oscar winner No Country For Old Men they made a taught thriller while pushing their aesthetic forward, and with their 2008 comedy Burn After Reading they proved that they could still make hilarious and accessible comedies while maintaining their dark sensibilities. I’ve always loved the Coens when they’re making broad comedy and dark thrillers; but their 2009 victory lap A Serious Man takes the form of that third type of film they’ve made throughout their careers, quirky/metaphorical dramedies, and that’s the side of their oeuvre I’ve never quite been able to close the deal on.
Set (and setting is never an unimportant detail in the work of the Coen brothers) in a Minnesota suburb circa 1967, A Serious Man sings the ballad of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish professor of theoretical physics. Gopnik is up for tenure as the film begins and his son will soon be undergoing his Bar Mitzvah, but he soon finds himself in the middle of an existential crisis. Gopnik’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) seems to be deep in some shady dealings and has come to live with Larry. Worse yet, Gopnik’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) tells him that she’s been seeing another man named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and that she wants a Get (a divorce within “the faith”). If that weren’t enough, he’s having a moral crisis over how to handle a Korean student who has left him an envelope of cash in order to receive a passing grade and he’s been getting threatening calls from the Columbia Record Club. As the movie goes on, these troubles seem less and less like coincidences and more and more like a series of tests from “Hashem.”
The Coen Brothers have always been an auteurist’s dream; they’ve had an incredibly distinct yet oddly adaptable style that absolutely envelopes everything they touch, at times almost to a fault. Fitting this film into the Coens’ body of work is one of its bigger pleasures. The film’s Minnesota setting will immediately invite comparisons to Fargo, but that’s a red herring, this film’s depiction of that setting is pretty different and its story is less literally blood soaked. Narratively I’d probably compare it to The Man Who Wasn’t There in that it’s about an ordinary man whose world collapses around him, tonally I’d probably compare it to the dead faced Miller’s Crossing, but the movie I’d most readily compare it to is Barton Fink both in its surrealism and in its spiritual overtones.
As such the film will probably fit pretty well into the Coen cannon, but its real gift to those analyzing the Coens as auteurs is much richer. This is a very personal film for the Coens, as it depicts the place where their odd, subdued psyches formed, as such this could be something of a Rosetta Stone for their sensibilities. The suburb here is unnamed, but it is presumably the Coens’ hometown of St. Louis Park, an old inner-ring suburb west of Minneapolis. The place has a very large Jewish population that lives among the town’s otherwise gentile Midwestern inhabitants. As I am myself a Minneapolis resident, I can attest that this is indeed a pretty detailed an accurate depiction of the area, although a lot has changed since 1967. St. Louis Park doesn’t look as desolate now as it does in the movie (which was actually filmed in a suburb called Bloomington), but there still is a pretty large Jewish population there. Less important than the look are the mannerisms and the details, which rang a lot more true here than they did in Fargo, a film in which everyone seemed to talk like they came straight out of a bad Ole and Lena joke.
All this meticulous setting detail isn’t just window dressing either; it serves to explain a lot of the main characters psychological state. Larry Gopnik is made to feel like an outsider in this suburb filled with mowed lawns and gruff gentiles who play catch and go hunting. His knowledge of Physics seems to mostly go unrewarded (he says he’s never published) and he’s only got three mostly unhelpful Rabbis to turn to during his crisis of faith. Gopnik’s nebbishy tendencies might have served him better in New York where he could have made friends with Woody Allen or something, but here he’s pretty much on his own. Also interesting is the effect the setting has on his children, particularly his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) who is most likely a stand in for the Coens. The summer of love exists only on the radio for Danny and he’s pretty aggressively uninterested both in his father’s travails and in the faith that makes him an outsider. One can picture him eventually getting bored enough to pick up a guitar to imitate the Jefferson Airplane music he’s always listening to, or if film had been his area of interest, perhaps a video camera.
Philosophically, the film addresses the age old question of why bad things happen to good people. That’s never really been a concern to secular thinkers like myself, but to people like Larry Gopnik who feel they are under the protection of a benevolent God, it is a conundrum.
Many have seen the film as having been based on the book of Job, and I will not disagree, in fact there are images toward the end of the film which all but confirm the connection. Essentially, Larry is subject to every cruel unpleasantly that the Coens can throw at him, but he puts up with it all because of his faith and his passive aggressive nature. I’m no theologian so I’m not going to comment on this too much; but I’m pretty sure that the Coens have changed the story’s ending to cynical effect, and that I like.
Some have said that the Coens have used celebrities as a crutch as of late, something this film will never be accused of as this film is pretty much devoid of them. The cast here is for the most part solid but anonymous, many of them being never before seen on film. Michael Stuhlbarg is quite strong in the lead; he manages to walk the fine line of nebbish stereotype, always falling just on the right side, and as his desperation grows he’s able to perfectly panic while trying desperately to internalize as much as he can. Richard Kind is probably the most recognizable face in the whole film, and he brings a pretty good presence to the whole thing. Similarly, Fred Melamed brings a real “that guy” presence to the film. If those names aren’t obscure enough for you, the Coens have also filled the movie with people who’ve never been in a movie before like Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, and David Kang who fit in right alongside the anonymous veterans.
Had this film come out in 2005 (in the wake of the Ladykillers debacle) it probably would have been called a return to form, coming out 2009 it’s more like a return to weirdness. In spite of all the film’s many merits, this is simply a movie that is almost smothered in the Coens usual quirks and it will probably baffle anyone who isn’t a diehard Coen veteran. Coen films are almost never “for everyone” and this one is even more “not for everyone” than usual, and I’m not sure it was “for me.” This is a film that is hard to truly like but almost impossible not to respect.
*** out of Four