Man of constant sorrow
Coen brothers are at their unusual best with A Serious Man
One of the virtues of the remarkable new Coen brothers movie is that it’s not quite like anything they’ve done before. It’s easy enough to find connections to other films of theirs—especially in the scathing approach to comedy and that exuberantly gloomy outlook on human existence. But A Serious Man mostly steers clear of the cynical indulgences and cold-blooded excesses that are commonly (but not always rightly) viewed as Coen trademarks.
And even with its relentlessly gloomy storyline, this picture is surprisingly light on its feet. Sardonic comedy and an almost Kafkaesque pattern of doom intermingle to particularly lively effect, and this movie with no big stars is loaded with quirky characters so deftly sketched that the Coens’ supposed weakness for cruelly reductive caricature never really becomes an issue—quite the opposite, in fact.
The central figure is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college physics professor who lives with his not-so-happy wife, two sassy teenaged kids, and a ne’er-do-well uncle in a Minnesota suburb in the early 1960s. The Gopniks are middle-class Jews, and Jewish life at mid-century in the upper Midwest is one of several pungent subjects percolating at the heart of a richly detailed comedy of manners that also does compelling double duty as both an anguished metaphysical farce and a scathingly funny slice-of-life saga.
Larry’s Job-like accumulation of woes is what passes for a central plot-thread, but the film’s liveliest appeal resides in its devastatingly comical parade of incisive and succinctly observed characterizations. Plus, there’s a beguiling narrative abundance in all this. A folk-tale-like prologue sets the overall mood of darkly comical paradox, and the unfolding episodic accounts of Larry’s misfortunes—large and small; at home, at work; and in everything that might matter, emotionally and spiritually, to “a serious man” like him—are further richened by digressions, stories within stories, parallel tales (including especially the mishaps and pratfalls of his son’s approaching Bar Mitzvah), and the occasional wacko dream sequence.
A good deal of the best dialogue in the film works some astonishingly funny and smart variations on the various euphemisms and platitudes that everybody—friends, relatives, colleagues, spiritual and legal advisers (including three sharply contrasting rabbis)—brings to bear, or tries to, as the mountain of misfortunes in Larry’s everyday life steadily grows. A half-dozen scenes in the film are little masterpieces in what amounts to an ingeniously astute and surprisingly heartfelt gallery of portraits of passive-aggressive manipulators, each of them acting in the guise of conventional well-meaning friends, neighbors, colleagues.
The best of these portraits include Larry’s disaffected wife (Sari Lennick); the sexy neighbor lady, Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker), with whom Larry gets a taste of the “new freedoms” of the 1960s; and Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), an officiously genial fatalist who provides the film with its most distinctively rambunctious digression—the tale of a dentist named Sussman who finds a mysterious Hebrew phrase inscribed in the teeth of one of his gentile patients. But the greatest masterpiece in the bunch is Cy Abelman (Fred Melamed), the guy with whom Larry’s wife has fallen in love and who is a brilliantly precise picture of charmingly sanctimonious hypocrisy as he presumes to advise and console Larry in the very instants in which he’s cuckolding the Coens’ beleaguered protagonist.
In its way, A Serious Man keeps very impressive company with two other richly endowed studies of middle-class life in the early 1960s—the excellent An Education, which preceded the Coen film at the Pageant Theatre here in Chico, and the recently completed third season of Mad Men on AMC. The Coens shrewdly feature some Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix on the soundtrack here, but it’s characteristic of this film’s understated methods that it uses the songs’ lengthy intros rather than the songs themselves in two particularly striking instances.