31 Days of Film: A Serious Man
America has produced some of the greatest filmmakers ever: Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, John Ford, the list goes on. But even among the all-time greats, the Coen Brothers stand apart. It is exceedingly rare to have a writer-director duo that has worked almost exclusively together throughout their career and even more rare for that duo to have produced a body of work as excellent as the Coens. In their deep filmography there are many films that some would argue is the best: Fargo, Barton Fink, No Country for Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Big Lebowski, but the pick of the self-proclaimed Coen Brothers diehards is A Serious Man. Adam Nayman who wrote the definitie book on the works of the Coen Brothers, The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together, recently listed it as his favorite film of the brothers’. As much as I love the Coens the concept of A Serious Man never resonated with me which is possibly why it’s sat on my list as long as it has. But as with most of the films on my list that I put off and put off for one reason or another I regret having waited this long to see A Serious Man for the first time.
A Serious Man is more understated than the Coens’ most famous films, it has neither the shocking violence of Fargo or Burn After Reading nor the irreverent comedy of The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou? and there aren’t nearly as many dance numbers as Hail, Caesar! But instead A Serious Man tells a quiet, human story of the futility of life and trying to shape the world to your will. Larry Gopnick, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a Jewish man living in 1967 Minnesota who works as a physics professor. In the film the audience watches Gopnick’s life quickly fall apart around him and he unable to stop it, no matter how hard he tries. His wife demands a get to remarry, the vote on his tenure is being sabotaged by someone anonymously writing the physics department, he is bribed and stalked by a South Korean student and his father, and when the man that his wife left him for dies he has to pay for his funeral—for some reason. During the tumultuous time Larry seeks the counsel of three rabbis who offer him no more insight on his situation. The whole journey of the film as the audience watches Larry Gopnick’s life collapse around him through no fault of his own, seemingly tormented by a higher power but unable to gain any relief from the synagogue, all ending in a climatic shot of a tornado beautifully and horrifyingly descending upon his son’s school.
It’s never ideal to watch a Coen Brothers movie once and try and write about it, it’s never best to do that with any movie really but particularly the Coens who pack their films with so many references and allegories that will go missed the first time through. A Serious Man is one of the most packed of their films with literary and musical references and references to religious stories and cinema there is no way I caught even half of them on first watch. The real brilliance of A Serious Man is that even parts of the film I’m not 100% sure I understand, chiefly among them the prologue of the film, are a joy to watch because of the masterful writing and performances. The film is most interested in the role of fate in one’s life and futility of the world around you. The film’s most interesting character is Arthur Gopnik, Larry’s destitute brother who is living on his couch despite working tirelessly on The Mentaculus, a series of incomprehensible scribbles in his notebook that he claims map out the probability of the universe. Arthur finds some brief luck in gambling but over the course of the film it becomes clear that he may be the only character that has been treated worse by the “probability map of the universe” than his brother Larry.
The performances are all exemplary, which should come as no surprise because the Coens have proved over the years their knack for getting the best performances out of talented, underappreciated actors. And no other performance exemplifies that better perhaps than Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man. Stuhlbarg seems to float through scenes as the world comes crashing down around him. Most actors can do big, hamming it up or weeping uncontrollably or expressing uncontrollable rage. That’s in every actors’ playbook—some better than others—but it takes something special to own the screen with a quiet, reserved performance, like Stulbarg does as Larry.
A Serious Man is profoundly personal and deeply complex. That asks if life can be understood or if one should even try. It’s the Coens at their best blending dark humor with complex characters and a mastery of cinematic craft. There are few, if anyone, that can compete with the Coen Brothers when they are at their best and A Serious Man is them at their best.