Devil’s DVD Advocacy: A Serious Man
When attempting to categorize comedy, there are roughly three types that come to mind. One is the normal kind of comedy, full of ironic jokes and punch lines. Another is slapstick, overly dramatic falls to the ground and what-not. The third is black comedy, where the audience doesn’t laugh so much as wince at the misfortune that befalls those in the film. Joel and Ethan Coen have become the masters of such a realm (primarily for Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and most recently, Burn After Reading). Their newest, A Serious Man, follows in this same vein, as a character undergoes an increasingly bizarre amount of changes to his mundane life. And yet, one gets the feeling that a good portion of their own background has been added to the mix, hammered home by the use of relatively unknown actors. Their most personal and refined story yet, A Serious Man is another of the Coen brothers’ triumphs in filmmaking, this time in utilizing their black comedy talents in their native Minnesota soil for an original tale of intimate suburban misfortune unlike any other.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Jewish family man and physics professor in a 1967 Minnesota suburb. He has a wonderful home, a son approaching his bar mitzvah, and his position is up for tenure. But while this may seem idyllic, you have yet to meet the spiritually troubled Larry Gopnik, plagued with woes of varying degrees. His son Danny smokes marijuana and owes money to a bully at his Hebrew school. His daughter Sarah steals money from his wallet to finance a nosejob. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who sleeps on the couch when not constantly occupying the bathroom, is working on a book of complicated algorithms to win at gambling, which attracts police attention. His wife Judith asks for a divorce out of the blue; she has taken up with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), Larry’s best friend who consoles him a little too nicely, and they ask him and Arthur to move into a hotel. A Korean student tries to bribe him for a passing grade, then his father threatens to sue for defamation (Larry: “are you saying you tried to bribe me or not?” Mr. Clive: “accept the mystery”). The Columbia Record Company keeps calling his office in request of payments for a subscription he didn’t order. Someone is mailing slanderous letters about him to the tenure committee. A macho, hunting enthusiast neighbor is encroaching on the property line. And all the while, Larry cannot seek any comfort from his faith, as three rabbis either rebuff him or tell him dizzying tales that lack the guidance he needs.
Many critics have called this “the kind of movie you get to make after you win an Oscar”. I don’t think it’s possible to improve that title. It has no stars to bank on (a huge change from Burn After Reading, in which all six main actors either had Oscars or had been nominated), and no conventional plot that audiences would immediately recognize. Instead, it follows one simple theme: you have to make sense of life on your own, because no one has “the answer”. There is no “happily ever after” to life’s events; just take one day at a time, because chaos happens and there’s no way to plan for it. There are two stories featured in the film: one is a prologue, set in Eastern Europe circa early 1900′s, that follows a couple’s dealings with an elderly neighbor who may or may not be an evil wandering spirit; the second is told by a rabbi as he tries to console Larry, and concerns a Jewish dentist who discovers Hebrew writing on the inside of a gentile’s teeth. Neither tale has an overall moral or even a conclusion (Larry’s response in this case is appropriate: “why even tell me the story?”), just like life. It’s a unique message, and one that I won’t soon forget.
But that’s not the only reason this film is memorable. One is the inspired direction of the Coen brothers, who I believe are also the definitive experts on when exactly to end a scene. No matter if it’s a deadpan comedic line or an act of random violence, they know precisely what moment will have the greatest effect on an audience. The actors they selected also entirely inhabit their roles; Stulhbarg and Melamed, especially, avoid the pitfalls of the inexperienced. Instead of playing Larry as an unceasingly whiny, complaining loser who makes the audience think he’s getting what’s coming, he simply appears in a state of perpetual confusion, as if his inner struggle is simply with “hashem” (the Jewish word for God) as to why all this befalls him. Melamed, too, rises above expectations, and I believe he deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his part as both the attempted counselor of Larry to his fate in reality and the haunting harbinger of doom in his dreams. This guy could be telling you he just murdered your family, but you still wouldn’t be able to resist his bear hug. The rest of the cast is spot-on as well; even the small part of Larry’s neighbor, a bored, too-tan housewife with a drug habit and a look that either reads seduction or sedation, adds to the convoluted scenery. But there’s an organization to the chaos, and it’s so easy to get lost in the many plotlines present in the narrative.
Some of the interviews of both Joel and Ethan Coen indicate that Larry is partially based on their father, as they grew up in the suburbs of Minnesota. This indicates just what this project meant to them, and what it should mean to us. Sure, it’s an expertly crafted film on its own, but with that knowledge, there’s a whole new layer to that creativity. I award A Serious Man 4 pitchforks; by both playing to their well-known strengths and giving us a glimpse of their little-known early life, the Coens have once again outdone themselves by giving us a hilarious, bleak and very personal laundry list of a man’s many problems and how he struggles to solve them.