Of God and 'A Serious Man' ...
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
What does God want from us? What do we need from God? Why does trouble seem to come every day? Why is it that, when it doesn't come, we seem to go looking for it? How can we actually know anything? And what separates our desire to make sense of the world through theology, philosophy and science from sheer misguided madness? Don't you want somebody to love? If good art looks at universal questions, then great artists look at universal questions through their unique perspectives. In "A Serious Man," Joel and Ethan Coen show their mid-'60s youth in Minnesota and the nature of growing up Jewish in the heartland through the trials and troubles of Dr. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor stumbling on the tenure track and headed for a divorce. Dr. Gopnik spends his working hours teaching students the physics, science and mathematics behind the workings of the universe. In his waking hours, he tells himself that God has a plan and life has meaning. His son Danny (Aaron Wolf) is getting ready for his bar mitzvah and dodging the pot dealer he owes $20. And God works in mysterious ways, which are so mysterious they raise the question of if he's there at all.
Before you go imagining that "A Serious Man" is some beard-stroking, pipe-smoking deep meditation on the nature of the unknowable, though, you should know that it's also incredibly funny. It's shot through the Coens' usual deadpan lunacy but, at the same time, tempered with a slightly more down-to-earth normalcy that actually enhances the characters and the comedy. Larry isn't dealing with traditional Coen calamities like bounty hunters, rug-stealing thugs or serial-killing traveling salesmen; he's dealing with the things we all deal with: job, kids, marriage, neighbors. Much as in "Fargo," "A Serious Man" suggests that the Coens are principled enough to know that there's a difference between right and wrong, between good and evil, and are smart and honest enough to know that, often, which you choose has no effect on how the universe unfolds. "You have to see these things as expressions of [God's] will," as junior Rabbi Scott (a very funny Simon Helberg) explains to Larry. "You don't have to like it, of course."
Stuhlbarg, a stage actor, is given a showcase role here, and wrings everything he can from it. Larry's a decent man, but he also makes mistakes. The many injustices of life weigh upon him as he blinks from behind his glasses as he deals with his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wanting a get, a ritual divorce, so she can marry velvet-voiced pillar of the community Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) or with a student offering him a bribe in exchange for a passing grade. Stuhlbarg's look and Larry's life evoke the earlier Coen film "Barton Fink," in which John Turturro faced the many-headed challenges of life. And while Larry's problems are far less surreal, they're still real to him and to us.
Marking another collaboration between the Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins ("The Big Lebowski," "No Country for Old Men"), "A Serious Man" is shot with verve and vision, whether relating the story of a divine message revealed to a dentist in the unlikeliest of places or act-of-God weather bearing down onto the characters. The script evokes great moments in Jewish-American culture, from the darkly magical fables of Isaac Bashevis Singer to the more urban, urbane stories of Philip Roth. But the humor's universal, as in the nearly perfect staging and shooting of Danny's bar mitzvah or Larry's nightmare sequences.
As in any Coen brothers film, the supporting cast is not only superbly selected, but also woven effortlessly into the film, from Melamed's soothing, self-important "serious man," to Richard Kind as Larry's brother Arthur, an unemployable sad sack who spends his every hour working on "The Mentalculus," a complex set of graphs and equations designed to explain the universe. Amy Landecker also brings brief, important scenes to life as next-door neighbor Mrs. Samsky, whose kohl-rimmed eyes seduce and terrify Larry as she epitomizes the changing world Larry feels left out of. When Larry mentions trouble at home, Mrs. Samsky asks point-blank, "Do you ... enjoy the new freedoms?" as she offers him a joint, Mrs. Robinson gone beatnik.
And a part of what makes "A Serious Man" stick past its drop-dead funny gags and comedy-of-manners awkward conversations is, in part, how it speaks to so many different Americas: secular and religious, changing as the '60s become the '70s, where Jews live alongside (but apart from) their goy neighbors, familiar yet strange.
You don't have to be Jewish to like "A Serious Man"; it's one of the film's slyer jokes that some of the Jewish tradition and ritual in the film is so arcane that even the Jews in the film don't understand it. But "A Serious Man" isn't about being Jewish; it's about looking for God, about needing to find him, and about what you do when you can't. Funny but, yes, also thought-provoking and moving, "A Serious Man" may be among the Coens' finest works and stands as one of the funniest, freshest and smartest movies of 2009.