By Elise Nakhnikian
Six years ago, I wrote about what makes the Coen brothers some of the most distinctive filmmakers working today. Even their worst movies burn images into your brain forever, and their best are minor masterpieces.
I also wrote about how their perpetually bemused tone and the Olympian distance from which they view their characters (these guys love crane shots) can be a liability. Some of their smart movies about dumb people, like O Brother Where Art Thou or Blood Simple, feel coldly condescending, scoring points at the expense of their characters.
But I’m beginning to wonder if that snarkiness was a phase they’ve outgrown. It doesn’t seem to have tainted any of the six features and two shorts they’ve directed since 2000’s O Brother (I’m hedging because I didn’t see Ladykillers, but seeing as how Tom Hanks is the lead character, I’m guessing it’s a snark-free zone.) And there’s no hint of cattiness in their latest movie, which could be their best yet.
A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mid-century modern Job. He’s also a bit of a schnook, a nice guy who finishes dead last.
Larry’s cylindrical, helmet-haired wife (Sari Lennick) is cheating on him. A student at the high school where he teaches is trying to bribe him for a better grade, and it looks like he won’t get the tenure he’s up for. His shiftless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has set up camp on his couch, and his teenage son and daughter barely notice, let alone care, what Larry is going through. Even the Columbia Record Club has him on the ropes, insisting that he pay for a membership he never ordered. And that’s just the first 15 minutes or so of the movie.
Larry’s life could easily be played as a tragedy, but the brothers (I am, of course, talking about Joel and Ethan Coen, who cowrote, codirected, coedited and coproduced this one, as they do nearly all of their movies) are after something more entertaining, more open-ended, and ultimately deeper than straight tragedy.
As always, the Coens have set their story in a particular place and time, which they and their crew bring to riotous life. This time we’re in a Minnesota suburb in the late 1960s or early ‘70s – and, within that, in the close-knit Jewish community that lives there. The world they create is so tangible you can almost smell the pot and feel the disdain of its officious, aggressively unattractive secretaries (remember secretaries?) But it’s just exaggerated enough to nudge Larry’s story into the realm of fable.
A Serious Man opens with a Yiddish tale about a dyybuk (an evil spirit that possesses a dead man’s body), which puts us into that supernatural/surrealistic realm and introduces the movie’s central theme: You can’t always take things – or people – at face value. Or, as Larry puts it: “Everything that I thought was one way turns out to be another.”
Part of Larry’s problem is that he’s caught on the cusp of a cultural revolution. His son is listening to Jefferson Airplane when he’s supposed to be studying Hebrew for his bar mitzvah, the sexy woman down the street sunbathes in the nude, and they’re both getting high on a daily basis. The filmmakers keep showing us messy unrest beneath apparently placid surfaces, like the pan from the outside of Larry’s son’s Hebrew school bus to the sheltered kids swearing heroically inside.
Judaism is the sea the Gopniks swim in, always part of the story but never the story itself. The Coens cast generally unknown actors to make it easier for us to see that world and the people who live there on their own terms.
The acting is universally excellent. I particularly loved Lennick, who has never been in a movie before and who is wonderfully loathsome as Larry’s self-deluded wife, and Fred Malamed, who looks like Francis Ford Coppola, acts like Dr. Phil, and is hilariously sanctimonious as her lover. Amy Landecker is mesmerizing and slightly ridiculous as the sunbathing neighbor who, when Larry finally gets up the nerve to pay her a visit, drawls: “Do you partake of the new freedoms?” And Kind is wonderfully repellent as Arthur, nearly activating your gag reflex when he turns his turtle-like back to the camera to drain an enormous sebaceous cyst.
They’re tough acts to follow, but Stuhlbarg never cedes center stage, coming up with as many ways to look bewildered or beleaguered as Burger King has to make it your way.
Like modern-day Molieres, the Coens introduce us to ourselves, satirizing human weakness and societal silliness while celebrating human nature. In A Serious Man, they’re served up a tasty slice of the American experience, toasted to a nutty golden brown.