A Serious Man, the latest film from eccentric filmmaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen, is set in 1967 and tells the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg), a miserably unhappy physics professor whose life is an almost unbearable mess. His cheating wife wants a divorce, his kids are annoying and he’s sharing his house with his obnoxious loser of a brother all the while dealing with an assortment of professional problems. To try and alleviate some of his emotional pain, Gopnik seeks the council of various rabbis in order to get his life on track.
The film (which recently received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture) is a strange movie to say the least. It isn’t so much about following a linear storyline, rather focusing on a series of events in the life of a very desperate man seeking something resembling relief. Some will find the movie to be slow and convoluted, yet it was so well done I had no problem following it on every odd detour.
The acting is universally excellent. There aren’t any noticeable stars here (the only person I recognized was Richard Kind as Larry’s deadbeat brother, and if it weren’t for the Spin City reruns I used to watch religiously on FX I wouldn’t have noticed him either) which ultimately doesn’t hurt the movie at all as the Coens have successfully cast the right people in each role.
Stuhlbarg is excellent as the nebbish Larry, a man who has accumulated a string of unfortunate problems and is on the brink of exploding at all times. But while he does have moments of emotional outburst, this is not necessarily an angry performance and Stuhlbarg does a good job of showing the restraint Larry attempts to conduct himself with.
The best performance of the movie comes from Fred Melamed, who is absolutely hilarious as Sy Ableman, the man pushing Larry out of the picture so he can steal his wife. Sy is a person almost all of us have known in life. A man who believes if he stuffs an insane amount of faux sincerity into every sentence, people won’t realize what a prick he is. After watching this movie, I was stunned to see Melamed didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. This was one of the most perfect comedic performances I’ve seen in a long time and I can’t imagine there was a single better supporting performance this year, let alone five.
Though the acting played a huge role, the highest praise has to go to the Coen Brothers, who bounce back nicely following their royally disappointing 2008 film Burn After Reading. This movie is eccentric for sure, but never in a way that it calls unnecessary attention to itself. It’s a very Jewish picture in terms of depicting practice and theology, but the religious aspects were never presented in a way that weren’t made understandable to an uneducated gentile like myself.
This is not a movie for all tastes. There’s no major plot device driving the film along, but rather a string of events in the life of one frustrated man. A lot of people may be bothered by the movie, which in many instances actually ends up raising more questions than it answers. But if you’re someone who appreciates quirky dark comedy done right (in other words, if you’re pretentious), you won’t find a better movie of recent years that does it better than A Serious Man.
More than anything, this is a Coen Brothers movie done right which is why it deserves to be seen. Sometimes their capriciousness gets the best of them (Burn, the awful Ladykillers) but when they are on the top of their game, there are no others in the business who make more entertainingly weird movies. Only time will tell if this movie ends up ranking with their past masterpieces such as Fargo or No Country For Old Men, but for the present time it’s well worth the time of anyone who appreciates inventive and very funny black comedies.
* Very well acted
* Top notch writing and direction
* Some people won’t like the slow pacing and complicated storyline