A Serious Man
- James Mottram
- 13 November 2009
If the Coen brothers’ last film, CIA comedy Burn After Reading, was as empty as Brad Pitt’s bubble-headed gym-bunny, this latest effort is as rich as anything they’ve produced in their 25 years of filmmaking. While Fargo took them back to their Minnesota roots, A Serious Man is far more specific, returning the siblings to the 1960s Minneapolis suburb of their childhood. This being the Coens, however, you’d be wise not to look for too much in the way of autobiography. Rather, just revel in their most idiosyncratic/pot-addled film since The Big Lebowski.
The film follows Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor whose life begins to unravel faster than the speed of light. At work, a Korean student attempts to bribe and then blackmail him, while an anonymous letter-writer is bad-mouthing him to the tenure committee. At home, his no-good brother (Richard Kind) has come to stay and he keeps having wet dreams about his neighbour. Oh, and his wife has decided to leave him for family friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). As a result, Larry just wants to figure out why the universe is turning against him.
With an almost entirely unknown cast (though look out for a wonderful silent cameo from Coen regular Michael Lerner), this feels the polar opposite to the A-list heavy Burn After Reading (and even their Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men, which was really a nod to novelist Cormac McCarthy). In truth, it’s the Coens who are the stars here. Every detail – like the brother draining his abscess with a suction pump – has been dredged from their fertile imaginations and turned into something quite gem-like.
What impresses most though is that while A Serious Man trades in levity, it does have an earnest side to it. Unlike William H Macy’s character in Fargo, Larry’s problems are not of his own making. And his futile search for answers – quizzing Rabbis who are as bemused as we are – has an emotional pull (thanks in part to Stuhlbarg’s wonderfully even-handed performance) that perhaps only The Man Who Wasn’t There has managed in this decade of their work.
General release from Fri 20 Nov.