The Coen brothers have experimented with pretty much every genre available in cinema. Dark, bloody and comical are three elements that effectively connect every film they have made so far, with some of their movies leaning more towards film noir thrillers and others towards dry desert comedies. Whatever they come up with is steadily perfect. Until they come up with something like A Serious Man. Then we’re talking about a whole new ball game.
The film’s opening scene is nothing else than a parable which takes place in a shtetl in what is now Poland (what was then Russia). The language spoken is Yiddish and the story revolves around a couple who invite a respected elder man around their home and kill him, convinced that he was already dead anyway. Then the credits with Somebody To Love by Jefferson Airplane follow and the story about a Jewish man in 1967 whose life turns upside through a series of events, resulting in him questioning his faith, begins. An irrelevant opening scene? Perhaps, in the tight sense of the word. In any case, highly allegorical. And this is how a film that breaks every rule, gives dark and sarcastic a whole new meaning and questions everything from faith and academic responsibilities to family bonds and mortality, opens. But more than anything, this is how a film that has no intention of being serious and that will do anything to mock its own title, starts.
Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is an ordinary man who struggles to be a serious man as well. He searches for clarity, he seeks honesty and transparency. However it seems like no one — from his wife to his students — is willing to give him that. On the contrary, his wife (Sari Lennick) wants to leave him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is depressed and keeps locking himself up in his bathroom, his kids have more problems than he can even begin to imagine and his Asian graduate student tries to bribe him for a passing grade. As this wannabe serious man loses any balance he has so far tried to achieve in his life, he decides to visit a rabbi and seek advice. The first rabbi he goes to see fails to provide him with answers, so he visits a second one. The second rabbi fails even more miserably, so he seeks a third. And the more rabbis fail to help him, the more he distances himself from his dream to become a serious man…
This is a film very clearly written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen with no doubt about it. However, A Serious Man has something extremely rare even for the Coens. Something that only Barton Fink has — and that is absolute freedom. The Coens refuse to please anyone. They respect nothing, explain nothing, leave you hanging, care about no reviewer watching, care about no plot holes, no logical conclusions, no filmmaking techniques, no screenwriting rules, no conflict in their story, no likable protagonists, no budgets, no target audiences. They do as they please, they have fun with it and this is exactly why these two films are, at least for me, the two rawest, darkest, funniest, deepest and freest stories the duo has ever told us. They make cinema mean something, they give it weight, wit and intelligence and they also have a few Oscars to prove to whoever doubts their objective skills and impressive ability to apply black comedy in any genre and make it for any audience, that he’s shamefully mistaken.
But apart from the brilliance of the direction and the incredible wit that the brothers’ screenplay has to offer, the man behind Larry Gopnik is definitely the third piece of this puzzle. Michael Stuhlbarg is absolutely brilliant. Just like John Turturro as Barton Fink, Stuhlbarg’s character carries the same sweaty and confused aura which makes him trapped and miserable at the same time, but also funnily enough, not a loser. He’s not depressed, he’s not complaining, he’s not bringing his audience down with his behaviour. He is more puzzled, lost and utterly disoriented. A heavy grey cloud weighs over his head, which he endures, from beginning to end, like a martyr. He can’t help however but wonder “why”?… Why is all this happening to him?
Fred Melamed as the widower and wife-thief Sy Ableman also makes quite the impression, even if he’s just in the film for a short while. His presence is strong and his comedy is so subtle but striking that it almost makes him the Gopnik’s main antagonist although he’s not. All actors are perfectly cast and they all deliver the most powerful performances imaginable. The direction, dialogue, photography and editing has been done faultlessly and the soundtrack only ads to the overall dark madness — not often are synagogue and rabbi consultations dressed by Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane, am I right?
However the soundtrack is not irrelevant in any way. The film’s hallucinating atmosphere could only be evoked by the music that the Coen brothers have chosen. Now the fact that no one else would have ever used psychedelic rock in order to tell a Jewish academic professor’s life story is exactly what makes this film a marvel and Joel and Ethan Coen the most free and independent filmmakers. They drench their stories in weirdness, fear, discomfort, bitter comedy and rock ‘n’ roll, while refusing to compromise at any level. And this is how they deliver A Serious Man. One of the cleverest films ever made.
The Coen Brothers at Unsung Films
Search Unsung Films for “Coen brothers”