From the minds of the Coen brothers comes this tale of a rather pathetic Jewish professor of physics in late 60s Minnesota. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having all kinds of problems, from the serious to the mundane.
Larry is indeed A Serious Man, and one whose existence isn’t likely to be improved over the course of the film. Though you have a feeling if he could see the dark humor of his own situation, he might laugh himself to death.
His wife (Sari Lennick) has decided to leave him for a widower (Fred Melamed), his unemployed brother (Richard Kind) is living on his couch, his daughter (Jessica McManus) is stealing from him, a student unsatisfied with his grade (David Kang) is bribing and threatening him, a neighbor wants to build a shed on his property, the person deciding on his tenure at the college is receiving unflattering letters about the professor, and he’s being hounded by a telephone calls from a man demanding money for records Larry neither asked for nor received.
During these various crises, our protagonist attempts to find comfort from a lawyer (Alan Arkin) and a serious of rabbis (Simon Helberg, Alan Mandell, George Wyner), none of whom provide him with the solace he seeks. The outcome of each meeting only seems to add to the pressure and confusion Larry is faced with.
Like many characters from the films of the Coens, Larry Gopnik is a man in a world he can’t control. This provides for several humorous moments over the course of the film. Those expecting a screwball Coen comedy like The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou? may be slightly disappointed. What they will get is a bleak character study that may not overwhelm you, but will keep your attention.
Unlike many of the Coens’ other leading men, Larry isn’t in his situation for the questionable decisions he’s made but instead for his own inaction and unwillingness to confront the situations which are troubling him. For a main character, he’s about as pathetic as you can get.
The things which happen to him over the course of the film are both funny and sad, but it’s hard to feel for the character when he’s so unwilling to stand up for himself. The message, it seems, is that this character, and perhaps many of us who fail to act, are doomed. Isn’t that a cheery thought?
I was also somewhat confused by the lengthy opening scene involving a Hasidic Jewish couple (Yelena Shmulenson, Allen Lewis Rickman) who welcome in a stranger (Fyvush Finkel) who may or may not be a a wandering demon spirit. Although the little parable itself is well done, it adds little overall to the film except perhaps give the audience a peek at the hopelessness yet to come.
A Serious Man isn’t a great film, but it is a well-made and an intriguing intellectual exercise. It’s the character study of a man whose life is spinning out of control. It may not be funny enough or dark enough to be the Coen brothers classic, but it’s a solid entry into the catalog and one their fans shouldn’t miss out on.