A Serious Man Movie Review
In 1967 Minnesota, physics professor Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) is struggling as squeezes in on him. His loser uncle (Kind) has taken up residence on the sofa, his wife (Lennick) has decided to run off with a local widower (Melamed), and his teen kids (Wolff and McManus) are constantly pestering him about trivialities. Meanwhile, he's waiting to hear if he'll be given tenure at work and facing some medical tests. To make sense of it all, he consults his lawyer (Arkin) and a series of rabbis (Helberg, Wyner and Mandell).
The Coens are examining their own childhood with the period and setting, as well as the ethnicity and religion. The central theme that life is essentially unknowable is echoed in an opening caption, "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you" (Rashi), as well as a Jefferson Airplane track: "When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies, don't you want somebody to love?" The whole film mixes raw humour and wry hopefulness with a potent dose of bleak fatalism.
And it's impeccable filmmaking, with the Coens' expert writing, directing and editing enhanced by Roger Deakins' vibrant cinematography, Jess Gonchor's unfussy production design and Carter Burwell's perceptive score. It also features involving performances from the whole cast, anchored by Stuhlbarg's wonderfully matter-of-fact turn as a man who feels overwhelmed by what life is throwing at him and undercuts his growing frustration with good humour.
The constant insults hurled on him from every side are eerily recognisable, with pressures, temptations, injustices and irrational responsibilities all pushing the joy out of life. Even though Larry says and does nothing offensive, everyone treats him as if he's the cause of their woes. And since he doesn't feel guilty, he fails to stand up for himself. The Coens are such clever, observant filmmakers that they can bring out strong themes in fresh and often very funny ways that leave us entertained, shaken and provoked. Which is exactly what a good film should do.