Midwest America, 1967. A series of misfortunes befalls Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish physics professor whose central refrain, “I haven’t done anything,” says a lot more about him than he realises. Having taken his family life and job security for granted, he’s shocked when his wife asks for a divorce and baffled when one of his students tries to bribe him for a better grade.
His wife (Sari Lennick) wants to move Larry and his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) out of the house to move her lover Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) in. Sy is apparently a serious man, a quality that eludes Larry as he singularly fails to grasp why his life is going to shit. Elsewhere, his neighbour bewitches him by sunbathing nude, his son tries to avoid getting beat up because he owes money for weed and his daughter is secretly saving up to have a nose job.
As all of these events pile on top of each other, Larry seeks help from the elusive and sage Rabbi Marshak, settling for a couple of other, less-reputed rabbis along the way. In another film, that might be the driving force of the plot but, to tell you the truth, this is not the most conventional narrative.
The closest it has to a story is its retelling of the book of Job, planting a biblical tale in the more banal setting of suburban America. That’s not to say that the film lacks structure. The final ten minutes reflects a lot of what happens to Larry in the first ten minutes we see him and every comic exchange has buckets of meaning to it.
In this film, the Coen brothers have made what some have called their most Jewish film. Judaism certainly arises as a major theme, but seeing as how they both grew up in Minnesota in the 1960s, it would seem a more personal piece than such rhetoric suggests. After the Academy-pleasing No Country For Old Men and the mainstream farce comedy Burn After Reading, the Coens have eschewed their recurring cast members and made a film for themselves.
If almost any other director had done it, it would have come and gone in cinemas and maybe have found cult appreciation somewhere down the line. Instead, it got five star reviews across the board and eventually got a Best Picture nomination in the broadened Oscar category this year. I don’t want to say the Coens can do no wrong (The Ladykillers might have something to say about that), but you have to admire the consistency of their work.
Amongst the largely unknown cast, Stuhlbarg makes a marvellous milquetoast as Larry, nebbish and frustrated at all that’s going on around him. As much as possible, the script serves to position him as Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously alive and dead, or as Larry puts it to his class, “The cat is dead, or the cat is not dead,” suggesting that just because Larry is still breathing, it doesn’t mean he’s alive.
He’s only really upstaged by Fred Melamed as Sy. That voice will make your skin crawl in a way that only the awkwardness of some of the comedy in the script can better. He’s not your traditional movie homewrecker, and while you still hate him for being so slimy, it’d be a lot easier to hate him if he weren’t so bloody reasonable, hugging Larry warmly and telling him it’s all going to be fine. Bastard.
The humour throughout is absolutely pitch-black, but there are still a fair few laughs. There’d have to be, to relieve the enormous frustration nurtured in its audience with the idea that, because God presents humanity with questions without giving any answers, so should the film. Into the more theological themes, Schrödinger’s cat continues to mewl throughout, making for a religious/physical odyssey. Or oddity.
A Serious Man is either a tragic comedy or a comic tragedy. After two viewings, I’m still not sure which, but it is a film that benefits from multiple viewings, because it makes you think. Trouble is, you might not be able to stop thinking about it. It’s like watching someone scraping their nails down a blackboard, but not because it’s annoying or terrible. It’s just incredibly uncomfortable, and this elevates audience discomfort to high art.
That might not sound like anyone’s idea of a fun night in with a takeaway and a DVD, but it remains a bold experiment for the acclaimed directors, and one which seems to have paid off. Newcomers may well be alienated, but for fans in a particular, this is a witty and thoughtful addition to the Coen canon.
While this isn’t the most extras-laden release around by any stretch of the imagination, it’s quality over quantity that makes this disc’s special features worth a look.
Becoming Serious is a frank and informative discussion of the film’s origins and themes, including talking-head interviews with the cast and the Coen brothers. Critics have tried to interpret the film’s opening since it was released. It’s a 1:33 ratio vignette that tells a subtitled Yiddish folktale, and seemingly has little connection to the rest of the film.
Is the encounter with the dybbuk a metaphor for the Jews being cursed? No, the Coens here reveal that they just thought it would be cool, like the cartoons they used to play before the film started. I confess to having tried to analyse the opening myself when I saw it in cinemas, but it’s heartening to see it explained away in such short order.
Fred Melamed puts it best at the conclusion of this feature: “Life doesn’t have a meaning that we all figure out at the end. Good things happen, bad things happen, a lot of them unexplained.” A more succinct synopsis of the film itself would be very hard to formulate.
More technically instructive is Building 1967, a feature on how the period look was achieved. I was astounded to see the attention to detail that went into what I thought was a comparatively low-budget film. We see how an entire set and pulsating rubber brain were created to ape a cheesy 50s B-movie that appears in the film. On Danny’s black and white TV. In the background. For about three seconds.
Other details include the building of the Gopniks’ neighbourhood and how the crew procured some of the period vehicles that we see in the film. It’s not something you think about when you’re watching the film, but those vintage cars, in pristine condition? They have owners. Owners who are very pernicketty about their property, unless, of course, they get to cameo in your film and drive the cars themselves.
Each of these lasts around 15-20 minutes, but they both cover a lot of ground. Rounding out the extras is Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys, a short compilation of clips from the film with handy definitions of the Hebrew and Yiddish terms used by characters in the film for those unacquainted with those languages.
An audio commentary is conspicuous by its absence, although I would argue that a lot of what they might discuss about the film’s inception and production pops up in Becoming Serious.
A Serious Man is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.