A Serious Man review

Sixties life is rubbish for the Coens’ latest put-upon…

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Gentile? Lapsed Jew? Head to tinyurl.com/seriousyiddish before heading to A Serious Man – the Coen brothers’ most personal, challenging and, yes, Jewish film to date.

The link will take you to the film’s official site and a glossary of Yiddish terms that characters spit out with scant regard for goys in the audience. Don’t know what a goy is? Head to tinyurl.com/seriousyiddish.

After the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men and the star-stuffed Burn After Reading, this is the Coen film, you know, for fans. They will lap up the auteurs’ richest movie language since 1990’s Miller’s Crossing, they will feel Barton Fink-goosepimples at the story of one-good-man-against-the-whole-world and all Coenheads will blog about the mysterious shtetl-based (bygone Eastern European Jewish village) prologue with the same reverence afforded to The Dude’s rug. It’s a starless black comedy, a peculiar script in a familiar setting. It’s something the brothers haven’t done for well over a decade.

The story is set in the Minneapolis suburb of St Louis Park in 1967 – a place and time straight out of the creators’ upbringing. The serious man is a good man: Larry Gopnik (the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg), father to highly strung Danny (Aaron Wolff) and mouthy Sarah (Jessica McManus), brother to the useless Arthur (Richard Kind), professor at a local university where a student first tries to bribe him then subsequently sue him and, above all, complacent husband to adulterous wife Judith (Sari Lennick).

He’s in a tailspin. So, feeling a spiritual and personal void he wasn’t previously aware of, Larry heads for God and three different community rabbis of various stature and politeness in order to grasp some crumb of comfort, perhaps word that a blessed afterlife waits for him after his all-of-a-sudden cursed life. “I’ve tried to be a serious man. I’ve tried to do right. Be a member of the community… I need help,” he breaks down. Nice guys finish last.

In other hands, A Serious Man would descend into grim-faced fist-smashing and very possibly a hold-up at a burger bar by a bespectacled former defence worker in a neatly pressed white shirt. Instead though, it rarely – if ever – dips into sentimentality or chaos; its preferred mode is confident black comedy, flaunting the Coens’ familiar tics and quirks.

Thought the painting of the woman at the beach in Barton Fink was incomprehensible? Here the directors throw in lines such as “Without a Gett I’m an Agunah” that will mean nothing to 99.9 percent of viewers as if to say, screw Oscar and cash, this is our world. Join if you want.

But for all the delight of the Coens going back to their roots, A Serious Man frustrates in constantly making light of the personal crises at play. Larry’s predicament is everyday – especially in an age where external (crunch) factors make us passive members of society – but those he meets often push caricature.

Maybe it’s because the directors want you to care about Larry and it’s easier if he’s surrounded by kooks, but by making the rabbis cartoon holy men, the importance of religion is belittled in a film that is, essentially, all about finding some faith. Maybe that’s just how the teenage Coens remember their religious leaders but it’s hard to shake the feeling that if the brothers pushed the cry button more, rather than opting for a quick sight or speech gag, their undoubtedly personal film would have been more memorable. Painful.

But what on earth do we expect from the Coens, directors who have always found connection with audiences despite unparalleled inscrutability, as we leave the decade of their biggest hits? This won’t be one of them – the only recognisable cast member is Kind and that’s mainly because he’s been in Curb Your Enthusiasm – but the skill with which the directors handle Larry’s descent into madness is exemplary.

Take the pacing, which becomes more fraught and frantic as his mind folds in. Or the slow reveal of the professor at the base of a chalkboard full of problems so dense that no mind (save Will Hunting’s) could possibly solve them. Yes, just like Larry’s life.

A Serious Man is a curious film. It’s a niche Coen fan-flick at a time when their star is at its highest and it’s an apparently deeply personal film in which you learn very little about its creators’ childhood. But for two hours there is sufficient mystery and intrigue, more than enough characters to laugh at and a protagonist to love.

You’ll want to come back for more, work out what the prologue means and whether everyone in ’67 Minnesota was smoking grass. And you’ll want that glossary.

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