2009 | Directors and Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen (“Barton Fink,” “Raising Arizona”)
Joel and Ethan Coen possess many filmic attributes, but chief among these has to be their control over atmosphere; camera, music, line readings and the script all work in concert toward creating a nearly overwhelming mood that doubles as a time-specific setting in all their work. This effect goes a long way in making their latest effort, “A Serious Man,” as deep and layered a philosophical mystery as any of their films, and a darkly enjoyable treatise on their own coming-of-age experiences growing up Jewish in 1960s Minnesota.
Physics professor Larry Gopnik (a wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg) finds himself in a crisis of faith when his wife announces her intentions to divorce. Compounding Larry’s anxiety are myriad other problems that show up concurrently: his chance at tenure is being threatened by anonymous letters to the board; his pothead son, who is weeks away from his Bar Mitzvah, and his nagging daughter are at each others’ throats over stolen money; his deadbeat, possibly insane brother is living on his couch; a Korean student may be trying to bribe him into giving him a passing grade; and his goy neighbor is building a shed inches over the property line. He decides to turn to a series of increasingly vague and unhelpful rabbis to get answers about his crumbling existence, and all the while his mounting issues chip away at his checkbook, making the envelope full of hundred-dollar bills in his office desk drawer (the suspected bribe money) look better and better.
Many of the threads seem to go nowhere, but it’s in going nowhere that they become meaningful; though Larry takes his experiences as evidence of God testing him, Job-like, they look to an inhabitant of the 21st century as commonplace occurrences. Part of the dark humor lies in the fact that Larry’s problems are so very minuscule, but they wear on him like straws falling gently on a camel’s back. It’s only in his casual Judaism that they become magnified, as so many more faithful Jews cheerfully offer up answers that indicate their acceptance of the idea that God’s chosen people must bear an unequal burden, even if that burden is an average existence in drab suburban Hell on the way to the bosom of Abraham.
But the Coens are adept at turning such a normal set of difficulties into set pieces of dread. Every scene ramps up the ominous atmosphere to the point where the Jewish experience mirrors questions of faith in most religions. Larry’s constant complaint that he hasn’t “done anything” to deserve his fate is a familiar tune even to Canadian Lutherans, I’d imagine. What’s most telling, however, is the filmmakers’ recognition of man’s tendency, in any religion, to beg for God’s help when times are bad, yet slip comfortably back into evil when it’s assumed He’s not looking. The Coens seem happy to point out that man is much easier to blame for his own damnation.
Rating: Four of Five Stars