Unanswered questions seem to pervade the work of the Coen brothers; from the unexplained supernatural overtones of O Brother, Where Art Thou? to the sheer uncertainty of much of No Country for Old Men, it has long been the case that pair’s films provide more questions than they do answers. To say A Serious Man continues this trend, then, would be an understatement; this is a film about unanswered questions and the uncertainty of middle-age, and despite this lending proceedings something of an impenetrable ambiguity it nonetheless provides one of the most subtle, low-key and thought-provoking works of the pair’s careers.
Set amidst the backdrop of a quiet Midwestern Jewish community in 1967, the film sees university professor Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) marred by an unfaithful wife, pot-smoking son and unemployable possible-savant brother (Richard Kind), As his wife and her silky-voiced courter Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) blithely make domestic arrangements, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis in his quest to become a mensch – a serious man.
The plot, as per standard Coen fare, is wickedly dark, following Gopnik’s blighted existence to its inevitable (and almost literal) apocalyptic finale. In dealing with the mysteries of middle-age, the Coens have produced their most mature film to date, one more about the human condition than urine-soaked rugs or Tom Hanks’ goatee. As Kind has neatly put it, “it’s also a good yarn about one very sad SOB.”
Certainly, events are laced with a typical Coen veil of humour; from Gopnik’s boundary-obsessed redneck neighbours to wild-eyed junior rabbis, theirs is a world still inhabited largely by grotesques which, though sometimes jarring in their inclusion in what is a rather more refined piece of work than, say, The Big Lebowski, still provides suitable entertainment. One suspects that without the brevity their inclusion provides the film would shift in tone from dark to simply depressing.
The cast are also superb; relative unknown (at least on screen) Stuhlbarg provides a terrific portrait of a man who is “always surprised”; who has sunk comfortably into the status quo and quickly finds his world dissolving around him. It is a convincing, sincere performance which conveys the desperation of the man’s predicament whilst allowing the actor room to work his funny bone. Kind and Melamed, too, both contribute suitably memorable performances, even if the film is largely Stuhlbarg’s. Couple this with stunning cinematography and a soundtrack laced with Jefferson Airplane and the film is largely excellent.
However, this is possibly the pair’s most inaccessible work, packed as it is with heaps of Hebrew jargon (to the extent that press packs included a glossary of terms), with ambiguity also pushed to the limit. Nonetheless, unlike as I have sometimes found with the Coens’ work, this does not detract but rather add to a deep, thoughtful cinema experience which comes thoroughly recommended as one of the year’s most provoking films.