There’s a scale of weirdness to any film made by the Coen Brothers, and “A Serious Man” hits the red zone of idiosyncrasy immediately. An ode to Midwestern Judaism and the havoc of guilt, “Serious Man” is a tapestry of neuroses and personal damage, given a classic black comic strangling by the Coens, who leave no domestic discomfort behind. In fact, all this film contains is unease, making it a perfect itchy sweater film for those who enjoy their cinema on the suffocating side.
In suburban Minnesota during the summer of 1967, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is trapped in misery: facing the end of his marriage, a frantic Korean student who is looking to bribe his way out of a failing grade, a shiftless brother (Richard Kind) who’s lost in depression, the complete disinterest of his children, and goy neighbors messing with property lines. Larry is at the end of his rope, looking for guidance from a series of rabbis who only offer perplexing anecdotes and more confusion. Finding each new day worse than the last, Larry is unwillingly pushed into making difficult decisions about his life, hoping to avoid stern judgment from above and the wrath from those around him.
While not reaching the heights of insanity of such films as “Barton Fink,” “Serious Man” remains a pretty strange movie for Joel and Ethan Coen. Taking inspiration from their youth growing up Jewish and anxious in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, the boys revel in the fine details of the era, sending Larry through the spanking machine of life, with the hurt sweetened by a faith that traditionally demands the comfort of misery. The Coens write a knowing screenplay of despair, and if there are any filmmakers around able to convey a sense of hopelessness with minimal exertion, it’s these guys. Yet, “Serious Man” is a comedy, and flavorful one at that.
Observing Larry, a man making a living reducing the world to equations, trying to extract sense from his misfortune leads to some golden moments of conflict, most startlingly with his wife’s cooing, calculating lover, Sy Ableman (a wonderful Fred Melamed). Backed into divorce proceedings and kicked out of his own house, Larry finds a torrent of trouble awaiting him in the outside world, with his kids seeking drug-induced mischief, fighting temptation with a willing neighbor (a smoldering Amy Landecker), and finding his desperately needed tenure brought into question. Magnificently registering the peaks of paranoia, Stuhlbarg follows the Coens anywhere, committing to a performance of chest-tightening worry that rarely subsides.
“Serious Man” doesn’t enjoy a full dramatic agenda, preferring an episodic route with Larry and his woe as a way to hit the man from all sides, thus creating the needed swell of religious motivation for the blunt finale. The film’s a bit on the icy side and doesn’t penetrate too deeply, but the suffering is massaged magnificently by the Coens, making the emotional disconnect a relief.
Looking to his rabbis for guidance, Larry endures a runaround that brings him to a boiling point of moral sacrifice, pitting his faith versus the reality of his hopelessness. Again, the film ends cryptically and suddenly, taking standard religious rituals of guilt and heavenly punishment to their natural conclusion, leaving the audience right on the razor’s edge. It’s a finely bewildering knockout punch, but not uncharacteristic for the movie, which opens with a five-minute prologue showcasing a century-old Yiddish folk tale for reasons wonderfully interpretive. The Coens just love to play, and bless ‘em, they do it brilliantly.