It is quite a surreal and amazing feeling when you have expectations for a film that aren’t particularly high, and it ends up being one of the most dazzling experiences one has ever had. Honestly, I initially didn’t think too much of A Serious Man. I am not sure why I wasn’t that keen on this film – it is a black comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, two of the very best filmmakers working today, and it is a period piece that tells a very simple but moving story. I am not sure why I waited all these years to finally watch this film – all I can say is that I am beyond pleased, but this is an absolutely brilliant film and I adored it tremendously.
A Serious Man is set in 1967, in Minnesota (that brings back memories of another brilliant dark comedy directed by the Coen Brothers), and is about Lawrence “Larry” Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a somewhat unremarkable man. He lives an ordinary life, and everything seems to be going alright – until a storm of bad luck befalls him, such as his wife deciding to leave him for another man, or questions of morality. Larry is faced with the seemingly impossible task of simply surviving and not losing all hope, which is exactly what this film is about – one man’s singular quest to make the best of a terrible situation. It doesn’t help that he is surrounded by people with a resoundingly negative effect on his well-being, such as his pothead son, his daughter who seems to only care about washing her hair, his deadbeat brother and a whole bevy of strange and wonderful characters, all of which complicate Larry’s attempts to stay afloat in a world that is crumbling around him.
The lead role of Larry Gopnik was tailor-made for any actor who wanted an incredible and complex role. Honestly (and don’t take these as suggestions) I thought the role would have been exactly the kind of role that someone like Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller would’ve fought tooth-and-nail for, because it is a role that would acredit them serious gravitas as serious actors (believe it or not, as Punch-Drunk-Love does prove, Sandler is capable of giving a solid dramatic performance). The fact that the role went to Michael Stuhlbarg, who was somewhat of an unknown when this film was made, is actually pretty astounding – not that I am complaining at all. He did a spectacular job of playing such a sadsack protagonist, and it was impossible to not be drawn to his pathetic goofiness. Stuhlbarg has established himself as a great character actor, and A Serious Man was a tremendous breakout role for him. Stuhlbarg plays a tragic hero – a good man who just has terrible things done to him. His character does absolutely nothing wrong, and he is punished only because he has rotten luck. It is a wonderful performance from a great actor.
The supporting cast of A Serious Man is incredible. The Coen Brothers, to their credit, are brilliant at directing big stars as well as they are comfortable directing character actors. You get your character actors like J.K. Simmons and Chris Cooper, who are almost as recognizable as their big co-stars, but then you get your less well-known character actors. Then you get Fred Melamed. I have seen him in so many films, yet I constantly forget who he is. That isn’t a knock against Melamed – he is a wonderful actor. He’s just thrust into forgettable roles. In A Serious Man, he gets quite an interesting character – and while he may not be a major part of the film in terms of his performance, his spectre lurks as a presence, guiding Larry’s mental downfall. Melamed is simply one of many character actors the Coen Brothers gave a wonderful role to – and while there are certainly bigger names that could’ve played the role, casting Melamed was a far better decision, because he did the role justice.
The rest of the supporting cast is good, but hardly makes much of a dent. Richard Kind gives one of his usual “nice-but-sinister” supporting roles (I wonder if we will ever see a film lead by Richard Kind. I highly doubt it – not that he doesn’t have the talent, I just don’t know if there is a lead role that matches his sensibilities as a performer, and I think he is doomed to be a supporting player all his life). Sari Lennick is great as Larry’s strange wife, as are Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus as his children. Extremenly short performances by the likes of Fyvush Finkel, Simon Helberg and Adam Arkin (and many others) contribute to the strange but lovable nature of this film.
The Coen Brothers are fantastic filmmakers. I love them so very much – I have yet to encounter a film by the Coen Brothers that I didn’t like (even the ill-fated The Ladykillers had its charms) – and I may commit some cinephile heresy here by claiming that A Serious Man may be their best film. Not to say Fargo or No Country for Old Men aren’t towering achievements – there is just something about A Serious Man that struck me as strangely endearing, more than any of their other films. I just couldn’t look away from A Serious Man – it was a complex, hilarious and often tragic film that showed the brothers at their very best – edgy and socially conscious. Even if A Serious Man isn’t their very best, it is still located in the upper-tiers of their filmography, because its seamless blend of comedy and tragedy is truly something to behold. The Coen Brothers manage to play with narrative and genre in nearly all of their films, and in A Serious Man, they even craft something that is a weird combination of 1960s social satire, Shakespearean tragedy and Biblical tales. It is a melting pot of genre conventions and narrative development, and I think the Coen Brothers are absolutely incredible for how they crafted this film as well as they did.
Above everything else, A Serious Man may not be autobiographical, but it certainly does seem to be inspired quite a bit from the Coen Brothers’ Jewish upbringing. This is a film that takes a look inside the world of Jewish families, and makes some very bold steps towards portraying Judaism in the most honest and frank way as possible. The sense of community and tradition that defines the Jewish faith is put right at the centre of A Serious Man, and even though the film is about only one man’s search for meaning, it does do it by way of looking at traditions and customs, and building a world out of it. It strikes the balance between being honest and frank about the religion and a certain group of followers (because this is most certainly not a film about the entire Jewish community, only the small marginal group that resides within this film), and being outright and relatable enough as not to alienate viewers that are not too aware of Jewish customs. Perhaps it will cause a few moments of confusion when certain Yiddish words are used, but they are simple enough in context to be able to discern meaning out of it. I am only bringing this up as a subject of discussion because I feel like A Serious Man is a wonderful film, of which a major part of its brilliance can be attributed to how it explores the lives of these characters and how they understand and use tradition in their day-to-day life.
In addition to being about Jewish culture, A Serious Man is also a film about the Jewish religion. There are no shortages of religious references in this film, and it actually governs a large part of this film. The faith of these characters form a major part of the backdrop, and it is a major theme. There are so many allusions to religious iconography in this film, I feel like the omission of reference to one in particular was actually intentional, and left to the viewer to pick up on – that is of the tale of Job, the story of the man who had everything taken away from him and forced to undergo awful conditions by God to test his faith. I feel like A Serious Man could be somewhat of a retelling (or reworking) of that story, and the fact that it isn’t outright mentioned makes me think it isn’t a glaring flaw, but rather a glowing benefit – because if that was indeed the intention, it is a wonderful moment to pick up on it.
In addition to all of this, A Serious Man is a beautiful film to look at. The cinematography by Roger A. Deakins is great – it isn’t flashy or overly-showy, but it is stunning in its simplicity. The production design really brought out the inherent oddball nature of A Serious Man, and isolating this film to a specific time period was also a risky choice, but I have nothing but praise for this film in nearly all facets, but not in the least the visual design of this film. One can say much about the Coen Brothers, but one can never say they don’t take tremendous effort in making their films look as distinctive as possible.
A Serious Man is one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen. It combines great acting with a brilliant narrative, and blends it seamlessly together with the assistance of visual appearance that makes it utterly stunning. Michael Stuhlbarg is delightful in this film, and it is the very definition of a star-making turn. I could not recommend A Serious Man enough – it is a hilarious, dark and wonderful film that I am sure will entertain many people. It is not a simple film, and it has a clear motivation in how it handles its narrative in such a way to be the perfect combination of hilarious comedy and bleak tragedy. Truly a wonderful film and one I think is one of the true cinematic masterpieces of this century.