When they were shorn of the Oscar hoodoo surrounding No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan Cohen let their curly hair down with the enjoyably throwaway Burn After Reading. A Serious Man is completely different again, and personal, but still highly accomplished.
Casting aside their Hollywood Rolodex of C for Clooney and M for McDormand, A Serious Man is the story of an ordinary life told using extraordinary unknown actors.
It’s 1967 and Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is toiling with an insecure job at a quiet middle American university. His position is up for renewal and his wife (Sari Lennick) has just told him that she is leaving him for one of his snobby acquaintances – a man with seemingly more moral fibre than himself. His inept brother sleeps on the couch, his son isn’t taking his religious commitments seriously, and his daughter is a regular abuser of his wallet. Welcome to Larry’s life.
The 14th film from the Coens’ increasingly impressively stable is a very niche one. Right down to providing a glossary of Jewish terms with the production notes at the screening I attended, it’s a film that entertains on one level but also operates using another agenda for those in the know – and educates those that don’t (this reviewer’s hand is in the air).
Drawing favourable comparisons with Curb Your Enthusiasm, the film’s humour relies on the self-deprecating failings of Gopnik, a man struggling with the expectations of his faith and community. In a wonderful piece of divine intervention, the Coens have found the perfect foil with Michael Stuhlbarg. An anxious, nervous twitch of a man, he gives a performance of deadpan brilliance, reflecting the Coens’ own trials of life on his worrywart face, and providing the audience with their only real connection to the story.
It also covers much the same thematic ground as No Country For Old Men: the cruel inevitability of fate, and the crushing realisation of the inadequacy of an individual against the forces of nature. Very few movies pose as many existential questions to contemplate as this does.
But does that mean you’ll enjoy it?
Yes and no. Sometimes the humour is very specific and subtly ethnic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny. The “fable-lous” prologue is a fascinating off-kilter set-up; and young Danny’s inebriated Bar Mitzvah experience, although it’s the most low-brow set-piece, is definitely an awkward social situation that transcends any relation barriers.
Lovingly structured and recreated, A Serious Man is a difficult recommendation simply because it’s so personal to the film-makers. Audiences face a bit of a gamble, but since when did a punt on a Coen brothers movie backfire? And could the smart alec at the back who said The Ladykillers please sit down?