What a sad, strange, and beguiling film is A Serious Man. I’ve seen it twice in the last week or so, and both times I was utterly enchanted. It’s rare to find a movie this funny and this tragic, this touching and this bewildering. Really, too, it’s rare to find a movie this Jewish. A Serious Man is one of the very few movies I can think of that’s about Jews but not about the Holocaust, and though it’s set in suburban Minneapolis, there are only two or three characters who aren’t in the faith. This setting, the island of Jews in the sea of Gentiles, is one that – to my knowledge – hasn’t been explored much on the screen.
Todd McCarthy, writing in Variety, said that “A Serious Man is the kind of picture you get to make after you’ve won an Oscar”, and I think that’s very true. The film opens with a short prologue in an Eastern European shtetl, in which a husband and wife either defeat a dybbuk (a sort of wandering spirit) or kill a defenseless old man. The action then flashes forward to 1967. Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg, a Broadway actor who gives a career-making performance) is a professor at a small university. His life is going pretty well. He’s about to be granted tenure. His son’s bar mitzvah is approaching. But then everything falls apart: his wife admits that she’s having an affair with an insufferable fat man and asks him for a divorce; Larry is forced to procure the services of the world’s most pessimistic lawyer (Adam Arkin – probably, come to think of it, the biggest star in the film); and Larry’s brother Arthur is picked up for gambling. In an effort to stop his downward spiral, Larry visits three increasingly useless rabbis: the first rambles on about “changing your perspective” and a remarkably dull parking lot; the second tells Larry a long and rambling story about “the goy’s teeth”, but then won’t tell him what it means; and the third won’t see him at all.
To summarize the plot any further would be futile. But the plot isn’t the important thing here; the story is more just a coat-rack for the brothers to hang their ruminations upon. What does God want from us? How does he communicate those wants? How secure can we ever really be in our lives? A Serious Man raises those questions, but it doesn’t answer them; as with the story of the goy’s teeth, we’re left to draw our own conclusions.
The Coen brothers get great mileage from faces in this movie. There were a couple of moments when just a cut to someone’s face – whether to Stuhlbarg, all strained incomprehension, or to an elderly rabbi – caused the entire theater to break out in laughter. Some people turned this into a negative; Ella Taylor, writing in The Village Voice, said, “A Serious Man is crowded with fat Jews, aggressive Jews, passive-aggressive Jews, traitor Jews, loser Jews, shyster-Jews, emo-Jews, Jews who slurp their chicken soup, and—passing as sages—a clutch of yellow-teethed, know-nothing rabbis…But the visual impact of all these warty, unappetizing Jews (even the movie’s obligatory anti-Semite looks handsome by comparison) carries A Serious Man into the realm of the truly vicious.” I certainly don’t think this is fair; rather, I think that everyone in this film is ugly. The anti-semite that she’s referring to is this guy, and the goy with the teeth is one of the most truly hideous people ever to grace the screen. But the Coen brothers have always known how to derive humor from people’s appearance and mannerisms: think of Jon Polito in Miller’s Crossing or John Turturro in Barton Fink.
Roger Deakins continues to cement himself as one of the most talented cinematographers ever. He’s not given as many chances to show off here as he was in movies like Fargo, The Shawshank Redemption, or No Country for Old Men, but he does an admirable job finding beauty in the seemingly-mundane: a ladder coming to rest on the edge of a house, a professor in front of a blackboard. And the last shot – well, the last shot is haunting, to say the least, and it – like the film itself – stays with you long after the credits roll.