(This review was originally published online by The Film Nerd.)
It seems that since Raising Arizona the Coens have developed some sort of algebraic pattern for the films they release. For every dramatic piece the Coens generate they slap together two dark comedies. For every Miller’s Crossing there’s a Barton Fink and Hudsucker Proxy. For every Fargo (though sadistically humorous in its own right) there is a Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Who really counts Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers anyway?) Fulfilling their own prophetic formula, A Serious Man is the second of two black comedies since the Coens’ Best Picture winning, stunningly crafted No Country For Old Men. Preceded by Burn After Reading, it’s everything its predecessor wasn’t. Touching, sincere, and hypnotically hilarious, A Serious Man makes up for the blunders of Burn After Reading and proves the Coens best comedic effort since Lebowski. Forgive me O Brother fanatics.
Working off the Coens most personal script to date, A Serious Man addresses the very tangible fear of suburban misery. Larry Gopnik, a magnificent Michael Stuhlbarg, is a Jewish mathematics professor trapped in a stagnant suburban pool. On the outside of his cookie cutter home Larry sees only perfectly mowed lawns and father and son games of catch. Inside his own four walls, though, Larry’s life is falling apart and without a bit of his own consent.
His wife is leaving him for another man. His live-in brother is a lovably unbearable nitwit. Despite his well-intentioned fathering efforts his children are distant. Heck, even his TV antenna won’t consistently pick up all the right channels.
How is this funny?
The only reason we laugh is because we see the horrible truth hidden beneath the quick dialogue and zany situations. Of course, there are real families like this, totally unconnected, completely apathetic, and hiding their misery in dinner parties and swimming pools.
The entire story arc consists of Larry taking it and taking it and taking it...
With allusions from Job to Jesus Christ, the Coens create a man so empathetic, so easily pushed around and stepped on that we laugh because the alternative cuts too deep.
Brushing aside the Jewish/Goy (Jewish slang for Gentile) humor, much of which was lost on this white-southerner-raised-Protestant, A Serious Man is less a film about religion and more a film about one very serious man’s desperate situation and his steps to attempt a recovery and build some semblance of a fulfilling life.
That recovery never comes and what we’re left with is the same sad Larry with whom we started.
Just wait for the ending, as equally ambiguous as it is prophetic.
Like all of its 15 odd Coen produced ancestors, A Serious Man has its share of financial intrigue and out-of-nowhere violence, but its less about shock and more about bleakly comic substance.
A Serious Man is haunting. And it’s hilarious. And it’s very, very scary.
We laugh because we see ourselves in Larry, never fulfilling his dreams, but resigning to painted shutters and lawn sprinklers, the truest product of his suburban influences.
We know that our lives may one day mirror that of Larry’s and maybe our upbringings already do.
It’s this that pulls A Serious Man through every one of its brilliant 106 minutes. That and a little good ole’ Coen brothers mischievousness.