Initially, I thought it seemed like lazy promotional shorthand that A Serious Man, the new film from the Coen Brothers, had been referred to as their ‘Jewish film’. However, after watching it, there are few better descriptions that come to mind, as the brothers conjure up another dark, quirky comedy that manages to be both character-driven and oddly metaphorical. A film that is just as much about the Jewish-American experience, as it is about faith, religion and ideology in the face of the bleakness of modern life.
It is all-encompassing in its Jewishness (there are four credited as ‘language and liturgy’ advisers, and two ‘Yiddish translators’), yet still proves to be as humorous, daring and barmy as their best work, with its closest siblings, no doubt, being The Big Lebowski or Barton Fink.
Like the latter, A Serious Man is a period piece. Set in a suburban 1960s that is defined by quiet neighbourhoods and the roaring psyche-rock of Jefferson Airplane, the film centers around the life of Larry Gopnik, a physics college professor on the verge of being granted tenure.
This has also been deemed the Coens most autobiographical film, with much of the content and style being drawn from their childhood in the Jewish communities of Minnesota. However, whereas such an idea could turn out to be an indulgent vanity project, the result is utterly impressive.
Filming on location, with open auditions for key members of the cast, the film creates a strong sense of place and time, while using the mostly unfamiliar actors to great effect.
Michael Stuhlbarg, in particular, is great as Larry, a character who, in capsule form, is a neurotic, hapless academic in a Woody Allen-ish mould, but in practice is fleshed out as a long-suffering, principled everyman. He leads a cast full of well-drawn characters who are stylised, yet stay on the right side of caricature, making them memorable, yet not incongruous. Chief among these is Fred Melamed, as the smooth, sensual Sy Abelman, the sort of scene-stealing supporting role in which John Goodman usually excels; but the Coens have filled A Serious Man with characters defined by their minuscule details, including a shuffling secretary with a hacking cough, a schoolboy with an obsessive fondness for the f-word, and the buzz-cut, baseball-chucking, all-American neighbours.
While on its most immediate level, A Serious Man is a darkly comic farce, with Larry sent through a gauntlet of unlucky happenstances and development – he must cope with divorce, his nagging children, his socially-awkward brother Arthur (Richard Kind), among other things – the whole package is strengthened by strong thematic undercurrents.
This is a film about religion, and the narratives used to explain the world; it is steeped in references to Judaisim and its teaching – the story of Job, most obviously – and the redundancy of such fables in the light of modern life and experience, seen through the clinical gaze of science.
As Larry seeks advice about his problems, the community’s patriarchs – the religious teachers, the rabbis – offer digressions, riddles, or more questions. Which, in the face of emotional strife, disintegrating marriages and mounting bills, offer little aid. While this stresses moments of humanism, and the (rare, in this case) pleasures shared with family and friends, these troubling, conflicted, nihilistic undertones build towards an apocalyptic, ambiguous conclusion: a scene of the end-times, framed beautifully by Roger Deakins, who once more manages to reconcile both the mundane and the fantastical flights of the Coens’ fancy with grace and aplomb.
A Serious Man is certainly one of the Coen Brothers’ best works. There’s a risk that audiences might be put off by the lack of stars, or the tight, insulated focus on creed and community, or the fact that it does not exhibit the cross-over, genre-bending appeal of Fargo, or the stoner-friendly cultishness of The Big Lebowski. But that is their loss.
Not only does the film have the off-kilter worldview, memorably expressive moments, and sharp dialogue of top-game Coens, it also has affecting depths of maturity and lyricism.