After the comedic sucker punch of Burn After Reading that followed the majestic No Country For Old Men, trying to guess what to expect from the latest Coen Brothers offering was never going to be easy. Early word had suggested this was akin to their autobiographical film, their most personal one to date. And that’s certainly true to some extent: the film follows a Jewish family in 1960s America, including a young boy’s travails leading up to his bar mitzvah that you can imagine as a heightened version of the Coens’ own.
That’s pretty much where it ends, though. Because, like much of the Coens’ best work, what makes A Serious Man so mesmerising is the feeling that you’re watching something without a clue as to where it’s heading, whilst knowing you’re in the hands of storytellers who know exactly what they’re doing. It may not be to everyone’s taste – we’re closer to the dark humour of Barton Fink here than the playfulness of The Big Lewbowski, and quite often even more black – but those who do take to it are in for a serious treat.
The film starts with a prologue set in 1800s Poland, a Yiddish couple expecting a guest to dinner whom the wife thinks died last year, that serves as a perfect flavour of what to expect from the next 100 minutes: funny, dark and with a pervading sense of doom that slowly takes hold and grips like a vice.
From there the film jumps forward to follow Larry Gupnik, a husband, father, and University professor, who seems to have done the right thing all his life, only for it now to unravel on him at every turn. His wife leaves him for an overbearing new lover who moves into the family home and forces Larry into a motel, his career at the University is under threat, his brother is being investigated by the police, and his kids are either smoking pot or can’t stand him.
With trousers too short to reach his shoes and a bum that sticks out to exaggerated effect, he’s a caricature clown at times, yet, he’s underplayed to perfection by Michael Stuhlbarg (who sounds eerily like The West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford), all hangdog expression and quiet resignation as his life turns to ruin.
When the Coens can get any movie star in the world to show up and make a fool of themselves, there’s something refreshing about A Serious Man‘s cast of lesser known actors. Richard Kind (from TV’s Spin City) and Adam Arkin are the most recognisable names in the cast, and it makes for a wonderful ensemble feel, far better than Burn After Reading‘s merry-go-round of big hitters waiting for their turn to shine. Although special mention must go to Fred Melamed’s hilarious Sy Ableman, the pompous lover of Larry’s wife who’s like the guest at the party you don’t want to get stuck talking to.
Indeed, A Serious Man is a very funny film. The Coens’ ear for dialogue and sense of timing are as good as ever, and there are moments where the banality of suburban routine – a coughing secretary, a soup-slurping family meal, a family arguing over the bathroom – is elevated to near perfect moments of comedy.
But it’s also a quietly terrifying one. Just as the Coens can turn everyday scenes into comedic gold, so they are able to infuse them with a sense of dread elsewhere; Larry’s brother emerging from a dip at the beach becomes so disturbing and scary that it feels like you’re watching the first Coen Brothers horror film.
And as it builds towards its climax – a test of one man’s faith – A Serious Man feels as apocalyptic as a Roland Emmerich film wishes it could be. It’s dense and heady, and while that sounds rather heavy-going, the Coens are able to combine bleak and funny to wonderful effect. It’s a delicate balancing act few other filmmakers could likely pull off.
Those who found No Country For Old Men‘s ending curt may find A Serious Man‘s similarly frustrating. And there may be others, like me, who find it frustrating in the best possible way. Because spending time in the Coens’ world when they’re in their element as they are here is intoxicating. I didn’t want it to end, and when it did, I wanted to go back and have it start all over again.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to describe what kind of film A Serious Man is. The best I can come up with is it’s a great Coen Brothers one. I can’t think of any better recommendation than that to go see it.