Movie review by Greg Carlson
During the closing credit roll of “A Serious Man,” the Coens insist that “no Jews were harmed” in the making of their bleak and brilliant film. This piercing reminder of Joel and Ethan’s particular worldview also points to the filmmakers’ finely tuned ability to deftly integrate the deadly serious and the ridiculously comic. Few auteurs can match the siblings’ willingness to explore tragedy and personal failure with unrelenting laughter, and while many have posited that “A Serious Man” is their most “personal” film, it is simply one more in a chain of intimate and distinctive treasures stamped with unmistakable originality.
Michael Stuhlbarg, expertly cast, plays nerdy academic Larry Gopnik, a cautious and careful man whose life unravels with alarming speed just ahead of his doubtful bid for tenure. In short order, Larry is besieged by a manipulative student insistent on a passing grade, learns that his wife wants a divorce in order to marry a smug acquaintance, copes with his lazy brother’s protracted habitation on the living room couch, and fights lustful urges for the seductive nude sunbather who lives next-door while fearing the anti-Semitic encroachment of another neighbor. Meanwhile, Larry’s son Danny spends more time getting high, listening to Jefferson Airplane, and squabbling with his older sister than studying for his Bar Mitzvah.
Along with the major obstacles in Larry’s life, the Coens introduce several minor annoyances, ranging from auto accidents to pestering phone calls from the Columbia Record Club. One of the movie’s funniest blow-outs observes Gopnik’s mounting exasperation at being sent the featured album selection “Santana, Abraxas.” He repeatedly spits the title as if it were a curse, and one can picture Joel and Ethan fighting back tears of laughter behind the camera. Of course, the film’s 1967 setting makes “Abraxas,” which was not released until 1970, an anachronistic choice, but Larry’s emphatic rejection – he does not want “Abraxas,” he did not order “Abraxas,” and he will not listen to “Abraxas” – parallels his spiritual deafness and demonstrates the dizzying skill with which the Coens layer their parable.
Like their best work, which has now grown to a sizable collection of titles, “A Serious Man” capitalizes on the deadpan talents of a top-notch ensemble equipped to speak absurd Coen Brothers dialogue in earnest. The excellent Richard Kind slithers through his role as freeloading Uncle Arthur. Arthur constantly locks himself in the bathroom to drain the pus from a particularly stubborn sebaceous cyst, but his facility for complex mathematics has led to the design of the Mentaculus, a complex, mystical numerology that Arthur uses not to understand the workings of the universe but rather to cheat at card games.
Arthur’s Mentaculus serves perfectly as a metaphor for the metaphysical considerations the Coens explore with vigor. An ability to know the divine is impossible given the human impulses toward acquiring tangible, earthly rewards. As Larry’s troubles multiply, he seeks counsel from rabbinical authorities, and each of the visits vibrates with superbly calibrated comic timing. In one of the meetings, Larry is told a fanciful story about a mysterious inscription on the teeth of a goy, and is chided by the rabbi for wondering aloud what happened to the gentile. “Who cares?” comes the response, adding another quintessential Coen moment to their wondrous archive.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/9/09.