MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Black Comedy- Drama/ Stars: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Alan Mandell, Adam Arkin, George Wyner, Amy Landecker, Peter Breitmayer, Katherine Borowitz, Allen Lewis Rickman, Simon Helberg, Raye Birk, Michael Lerner, David Kang, Steve Park, Ari Hoptman/ Runtime: 106 minutes
A trinity of rabbis attempt to counsel a guy who finds himself smack dab in the middle of the worst crisis of his life. Sounds like the buildup to an absolutely terrible joke doesn’t it? Indeed I can honestly say that in a lesser skilled film helmer’s hands it most likely would be, but in the skilled and talented hands of master film helmers Joel and Ethan Coen (or as we shall refer to them for the rest of this review: The Coen Brothers), this manages to be a way too simple plot summary for the dynamic duo’s dark comedy from 2009 A Serious Man. Indeed operating as simultaneously a story of faith being to wilter as well as a quite heartfelt and earnest story about persevering even when put up against truly giant odds, this is a film which is honestly anything except, thankfully, conventional and predictable. I mean this is a film which opens its story with an artificially created Jewish folk story and then at a snail’s pace introduces us to the key characters, shows what they are all going through, begins piling on calamity upon calamity, and then abruptly concludes before the narrative even thinks about wrapping up. In fact, I’ll be honest to you reader: the very first time I decided to go for a swim in this particular cinematic pool, I was left completely and utterly befuddled. A bit odd really since, as someone who has really enjoyed the work that the Coens have come up with, I have always found myself wondering why other people, mostly my friends, just couldn’t comprehend No Country for Old Men, pushed away O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and who felt that Fargo went absolutely nowhere. Yet as the credit scrawl began to pop up for this film the word “huh?” did find its way to the tip of my tongue. Thankfully, due to the magic of Netflix, I decided to give it another watch since I couldn’t simply get my mind off this film and upon conclusion of the second watch, I am pleased to say this film was a significantly more rewarding cinematic experience because of it. Indeed you might not get it all on the first go-around, and it may not be on the same level as say Fargo, The Big Lebowski, or No Country for Old Men, but this is still a decent enough time filler to enjoy from 2 of America’s finest filmmakers.
The plot is as follows: A Serious Man tells the tale of a professor in the science known as physics and who goes by the name of Larry Gopnik as he is in the middle of watching his carefully orchestrated life begin to seriously crumble out from under his feet. Indeed his wife wants a ritual split so she can get with a known lothario at the local synagogue by the name of Sy Ableman, his kids seem to be more in tune with the material, mainly narcotics and nose jobs, than they are with the spiritual as they should be, his opportunity at obtaining tenure is under siege by a collection of random letters, his doctor desperately needs to speak with him, his slightly crazed neighbor keeps boldly constructing on their property line, his lawyer is not making things any easier which is resulting in an ever-increasing pile of legal fees, a Korean student is resorting to criminal measures to pass his class, his brother Arthur who lives with him and his family has been getting the attention, and not in a good way, of the local authorities, and seeing a naked woman next door is simply contributing even more tension and this list is only a showcase for our beleaguered hero’s most crucial dilemmas. Thus, finding himself really struggling to comprehend just why the Lord would put a devoted follower through so much, our intrepid hero decides to pay a visit to a trinity of rabbis in a hunt for answers. Unfortunately things soon go from frustrating to insanity inducing when the first rabbi is a junior rabbi who doesn’t have a lot of experience in the ways of the world and thus is only able to muster up straight clichés for wisdom, the second is older and seemingly wiser, but not even close to being more helpful, and the third is one who, although possessing of a reputation of being a truly wise man, is also a recluse who has no desire in seeing individuals like our stressed to the max protagonist whatsoever. Oy vey indeed!
Now I am pleased to say that more than the vast majority of other film helmers, The Coen Brothers are able to work with a slow burn pace as well as some truly quirky characters like nobody’s business so of course it should come as no surprise to learn that in that regard this is a film that fits them perfectly. Indeed it’s a much more personal film than say Fargo, and way more thoughtful than Intolerable Cruelty, but it is also one which is able to both flex and come to grips with it’s protagonists ever increasing amount of questions. Indeed as Larry falls more and more down the rabbit hole of despair so too does our slice of cinematic pie, and as he wanders more and more away from the path so too do the Coens from their established way of doing things. Thus, as a result and with no prior warning, this pitch-black comedy finds itself transforming into a present day religious allegory; a fact that is evident by how the protagonist literally undergoes trials faced by such men as David, Saul, and especially Job who are known figures in the Hebrew faith for having some serious crises of conscience while all the while those who would oppose our hero transform into the shady advisors of Job, Jezebel, Bathsheba, and even Old Scratch himself to a certain extent. Yet while this is all occurring, we also see our dynamic filmmaking duo fill the narrative with a series of timeless questions that have been a part of the world since religion and science started squabbling. Questions like “What does life truly mean”, “Why do bad things occur to decent people?”, “How could God if he loves me put me through so much misery?”, and of course “Can we really interpret God’s will or are we just really good at guessing?”. Indeed the Coens are able to take each and every one of these riveting questions with a delightful combination of intellect and wit whilst also rarely ditching the hidden and subtle comedy of everything going on and also never aiming for either a cheap sense of cynicism or a vibe of satire that feels superficial to the max in order to clog any holes in the philosophy being presented. Indeed even when odd coincidences and other assorted phenomenon begin to show up in the life of our beleaguered hero, the Coens still are able to make it work by providing our exasperated protagonist chances to either get the heck out of dodge or stand resolute no matter how tough or quirky what he is going through becomes.
It is also worth mentioning that thankfully, the Coens also manage to sideswipe a subtext that could appear to preach to the audience, any kind of political prodding or religious pokes, or just anything that might deter from the core of this movie. Indeed by placing the narrative in the long gone time known as the late ’60s, we see that they are also able to do a wonderful job of both concentrating solely on the characters, but also eradicating everything except the most relevant ingredients that the film needs to succeed. Now it is also intriguing to note that, for all our main protagonist has going on, his son is faced with a similar set of circumstances yet is actually able to acquire the answers that his father literally comes close to begging and pleading to receive. Suffice it to say that if they had a proper dynamic as father and son then they’d be able to relate to and help one another out, but operating independent of one another they just make their respective situations even more complicated. Indeed this is a film which is as much an analysis on how people really self-isolate themselves from their loved ones as much as they do their religious deity of choice. Oh and just so you know: this isn’t a comedy that will have you rolling in your seat, a satire that will change how you look at things, or a drama which will move you to tears and then some. Rather, this is a film that weasels its way through all three whilst also conjuring up nihilistic dramedy and a wry sense of humor that is worthy of the people at the helm. Yes you may have to sit down and view this film more than once to truly appreciate what it is offering, but in all fairness that is what makes watching a film helmed by the Coens such a unique and riveting cinematic experience unlike any other.
All in all I think it is safe to say that A Serious Man is one of those films that manages to prove to be quite the out of left field kind of delightful slice of cinematic pie in the form of a dark comedy about the grind of day to day life and the puzzles of what happens after death that takes joy in asking you, the audience member a few grand questions whilst keeping at bay even the most simple of solutions and also immersing its cast of characters in the swamp of their stormy existence. Yes there are quite a few of you out there who will most likely need to see this multiple times, myself included so don’t feel too bad, but be that as it may be it still should be stated that A Serious Man is nevertheless yet another truly iconic film from two of the most delightful yet quirky scribes and film helmers in the world of movie magic. On a scale of 1-5 I give A Serious Man a solid 3.5 out of 5.