The Coen Brother’s film, “A Serious Man” is no exception from the hauntingly existential nature of their cinematic body of work. “A Serious Man” is at its core an Existential Tragicomedy of the Jewish Faith. Joel and Ethan Coen give a myriad of other thematic slaps in the face, from dogmatic absurdity, adultery and parenting, Anti-Semitism, Rock and Roll, as well as their prevalent cloud of ganja smoke elevating character development.
“A Serious Man” centers on the slow paced progression of religious and marital angst in a Jewish Physics Professor, Larry Gopnik, in the suburban hollows of Minnesota. Experienced through the refreshingly subtle performance of Michael Stuhlbarg, Gopnik’s life is yanked apart and shredded with exaggerated torture. Everyone from his wife, kids, rabbi, boss, neighbor, brother and doctor tugs on a thread from Gopnik’s unraveling existence.
It is familiar territory for the Coen brothers who have unraveled the existence of a number of their characters in tortuous fashion. For instance, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) in “The Hudsucker Proxy,” Barton Fink (John Turturro) in “Barton Fink,” Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) in “The Big Lebowski,” or Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in “No Country for Old Men.” Perhaps where Larry Gopnik in “A Serious Man” differs is that our protagonist is not redeemed by his actions in the end, nor does he return to a state of normalcy, but does simply nothing to spice up and or improve his existence.
Larry Gopnik in fact stays unhinged, his tattered existence flapping in the wind, and as the last scene of “A Serious Man” hints at, completely vulnerable to the oncoming tempest; quite literally a tornado. There is no OZ, no man behind the curtain for Larry Gopnik and his dreams are a nightmarish succession of his inevitable demise. Were Gopnik to awake from this nightmare surrounded by his family and friends like Dorothy in OZ, he would be smack in the middle of the same nightmare. There is no looking glass for Gopnik to escape through and his reality is shaped by a miserable wife, a sickly brother, slightly demented and unavailable rabbis, apathetic offspring and his failing students.
Why would anyone want to subject themselves to such a horrible display of misfortune and inaction on the part of its victim? The simple and obvious answer is because the men behind this curtain of tragedy are Joel and Ethan Coen. The Coen Brothers are far from being serious men despite their existential meanderings and solemn themes. “A Serious Man” is an exquisitely woven character study, from shoes to soul, in a perfectly crafted suburban wasteland.
Much of the visual aesthetic in the Coen Brothers’s movies is their astute and comical attention to detail within a given time period. Coen Brother Films are like visually stunning museums depicting the lost retro generations of America. After a slight slump with “Burn After Reading,” the Coen Brothers returned to working with longtime collaborator and cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Deakins has been Oscar nominated for his cinematography on a number of Coen Brothers’s Films, including “Fargo,” “O Brother Where Art Thou,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “No Country for Old Men.” Now with his work on “A Serious Man,” Deakins should be slipped a favor, as the Academy so often does, for having lost these past nominations.
Deakins’s work is, on its own merit outside of favors, worthy of the nomination and even the award. His cinematography alone is a single reason to see “A Serious Man.” Though, that would be belittling to perhaps some of the Coen Brother’s finest writing and their direction of a tragically hip cast. Michael Stuhlbarg is easily the pinnacle of Jewish existentialism as Larry Gopnik; a performance that would make Woody Allen salivate after his flop with Larry David in “Whatever Works.” The brief role of Fyvush Finkel (“Picket Fences,” “Boston Public”) is reason alone to ensure your butt is in the seat for the beginning of the film. Richard Kind (“Mad About You,” “Spin City”) brings his television friendly bumbling to new heights as Gopnik’s ailing savant-like brother. The deliciously seductive performance of Amy Landecker as Mrs. Samsky will make joint smoking with your neighbor’s hot wife a new sought after fetish.
There is so much to relish in the Coen Brother’s “A Serious Man,” but it is easily overlooked if you’re not prepared for the hypnotic pace of quirky, intelligent humor. To truly prepare for this cinematic experience, play some Jefferson Airplane records in a room adorned with a few seventies porn star posters dimly lit by menorah candles while reading a copy of the Torah, on weed.