A Serious Man | The Coen Brothers Explore the Invisible Line Between Wisdom and Nothingness

Michael Stahlbarg plays Larry Gopnik and Fred Melamed is Sy Abelman in A Serious Man (photo: Wilson Webb, © 2009 Focus Features )

The Coen Brothers, aside from maybe David Lynch, are the only filmmakers whose successes and rare failures affect me in a way not unlike Tom Cruise reacting to his wrestling defeat in Born on the 4th of July. In other words, when they’re good, I’m on cloud nine, and when they’re bad, I question everything about life. With A Serious Man, I’m on cloud nine.

The Coens had gone through a terrible fallow period, which depressed me to no end. Then came the triumphant return of No Country for Old Men, followed by the inane, downright banal Burn After Reading, a smug film that seemed exceedingly pleased to be wasting so much talent. Thankfully, their new film, A Serious Man, is their most personal yet, and joins the pantheon of their very best (Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men). A penetrating, brutally unsentimental, yet warm look at the Midwestern Jewish suburbs they came from, A Serious Man blends quantum physics and nihilistic dread, resulting in a haunting, acutely funny koan to assimilation and the end of faith.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having a very hard time. A dedicated professor, father, and husband, he feels he has done all the right things, yet his life is unraveling. His tenure is in jeopardy, his wife wants a divorce, his gruff anti-Semitic neighbor is infringing on his property line, and his kids have grown rebellious with the ’60s counterculture (the film takes place in 1967). Adrift, Larry seeks advice from three rabbis, and their responses only deepen the mystery and elegy of Larry’s life.

A Serious Man begins with a Yiddish fable in which an old man visiting a peasant family on a cold winter’s night may or may not be a dybbuk, a spirit turned back from hell. This preamble is both eerie and funny and is never fully resolved, which seems to be the film’s cold core. All of the film’s brilliant dead-pan humor, dangling scenes, and creeping unease keep it precisely calibrated. A Serious Man may be about a man’s unfruitful quest for answers, but it is also about the invisible line between a joke and a horrible truth, between wisdom and nothingness. If this sounds like bleak stuff, it is. The film clearly reveals the Coens to be perhaps the jolliest nihilists since Bunuel.  This said, it’s not a bummer—it’s laugh-out-loud funny, brazenly sharp, and gilded with that patented Coen surrealism that’s simultaneously creepy and charming.

Despite the film’s existential conclusions, I found myself overjoyed and elated. Everything was back—the gorgeous Roger Deakins cinematography, the rumbling, baroque Carter Burwell score, the out-of-the-park character roles (Richard Kind kills). As great as No Country was, it was a bit of a departure for the brothers, perhaps due to the Cormac McCarthy source material. A Serious Man is deeply, gloriously in their singular wheelhouse. They are home and everything is right in the world.  A

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