Larry is a physics professor seeking tenure, and when we meet him we quickly see the fruits of his labour are rotting in the sun-soaked suburban sprawl of middle America. His family is a mess, with his chronically sick brother Arthur sleeping on the couch, conducting deep mathematical investigations to aid his secret gambling habit, his son’s bar mitzvah’s is approaching and only his confiscated pocket radio, the TV aerial and a burgeoning marijuana habit on his mind, a failing student attempts to bribe him and his wife wants to discuss their imminent divorce. This all happens in the first ten minutes of the film. And things only get worse for Larry.
The Coens have hidden complex questions on the nature of faith, mortality and the constant onslaught of meaningless adversity that befalls us, in amongst some beautifully observed and truly hilarious vignettes. It is their trademark oddness which elevates this story and the prologue, a small piece of folklore with a Grimm twist in its tale (told entirely in Yiddish), is a suitable introduction to the inventiveness and confidence of the Coens. A Serious Man is a film about staring into the abyss and hearing a deafening, endless silence.
The characters are where the Coens excel, and their films guarantee unique, memorable personalities and this film, though it centres primarily on Stuhlberg’s character, has a brilliant cast which populate Larry’s social and emotional disintegration. His wife’s lover is a fantastically outsized Coen creation called Sy Ableman (yet another perfectly named character), whose deep, hypnotising drawl is a masterpiece of passive aggressive behaviour and Larry, in his moral quagmire, is no match. Of course, this being a Coen brothers film, the unexpected chaos comes quickly to Sy, and the twisting gale of calamity which orbits Larry closer and closer gathers pace until he is forced to finally make a decision. Once he does, and all the pieces of this particularly diabolic puzzle are in place, the film cannons out another volley of curveballs and the film ends on a beautiful and necessary note.
There is no order in the chaos of Larry’s life, no answers or reassuring moral messages from the succession of Rabbi Larry consults. The story of the Goy’s teeth is a perfect and hilarious illustration of the meaningless of asking questions in order to get answers. Larry, standing on his roof to fix his TV aerial has the unlooked for advantage of a new perspective over his everyday suburbia, and just as we think he’s making progress he is distracted and entranced by his neighbour sunbathing nude. Larry’s only absolute understanding is of the Uncertainty Principle, writ large in oversized detail on his classroom blackboard. This is entirely in keeping with the confusing nature of the film, as is the moment when the ghost of a main character rams Larry’s face into the blackboard again and again and again.
A Serious Man is not so much a love letter to the Coen’s past as a fabulist reworking of remembered scenes and tall tales, dysfunctional families and mass of meshugas (and that’s enough Yiddish from a Goy like me”¦). It is a rich and esoteric film of impeccable detail and many cruel laughs. The Coens have become masters of the unexpected and have made a personal and mature film that sparkles with enough inherent brilliance to make it worth your time.
As a final note, in case you missed it, I wanted to include the outstanding trailer for A Serious Man which is as sublime and original as befits a Coen brothers film. Check it out below and there is an excellent article here on the creation of this piece of work, which is considered by many to be the best trailer of the year.