A Serious Man – 3 1/2 out of 4 Stars
Right after the Best Picture Oscar winner No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen, known in most circles simply under the moniker “the Coen Brothers,” have another potential hit on their hands. This time, it is a black comedy that sticks closer to their personal roots than anything they have done previously.
A Serious Man, due out this Friday, Oct. 2, follows the quick deterioration of character Larry Gopnik’s life. Set in a Midwestern suburb in 1967, Gopnik (played by Michael Sthulbarg) is a physics professor at a quiet university who lives a life concerned mostly with his daily routine and keeping the status quo. For the most part, Larry is an extremely personable character. Even Sthulberg claims that “there is a little bit of Larry in everyone.”
The other players include Larry’s wife, who is having an extra-marital affair, his daughter, who is stealing money from his wallet to save for a nose job, his son, whose interests include smoking pot and shirking Hebrew lessons to listen to Jefferson Airplane, and his unemployable brother who sleeps on his couch while healing a recurring abscess on the back of his neck. After living, as many people do, in the stupor of the everyday for several years, Larry is taken aback by the sudden announcement that his wife is cheating on him with a pompous mutual friend of theirs, Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), and wants a divorce.
This, as well as several other factors, including his pending tenure at the university and a student attempting to simultaneously bribe him for a grade and sue him for defamation, causes Larry to fall into an intense crisis of faith. Eventually, he is led to seek the advice of three different rabbis.
As Larry’s story continues and his life careens more and more off of the comfortable path he is accustomed to, viewers wonder whether he will ever find answers to the questions plaguing him. In this, one of the darkest of black comedies, the laughs are quick, but viewers may find themselves thinking about some of the film’s issues long afterwards.
Writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen drew heavily from their own experiences growing up in a Jewish suburb in the Midwest to write the script and create the atmosphere seen onscreen. Although some Jewish historians and translators were needed on set, the Coen’s themselves took care of the majority of the Judaica seen onscreen.
The Bar Mitzvah scene that Larry’s son Danny goes through is based on the experiences of the brothers themselves. The neighborhood and neighbors are based, in part, on ones the brothers grew up with. Similarly, the representation of rabbis as wise, sage-like characters is taken directly from the experiences of the brothers.
The Coen’s claimed that the rabbis in their community were mysterious figures, capable of solving even the most complex problems. Drawing from their personal experience, Joel and Ethan Coen are able to create a look into a universe unknown for those who, like most people, have no experience with the Midwestern Jewish community.
The attention to detail taken by the actors and the creative team is stunning and almost overwhelming. While being watched, the movie transports viewers back to 1967, by immersing them in the music of the decade. The iconic Jefferson Airplane song, “Somebody to Love,” is particularly effective. Ethan Coen claims was used because it encapsulated the atmosphere of those years of the 1960, especially “swingin’ ’67.” By also using clothing, furnishing, and cars that would all have appeared in 60s small-town America, the Coen brothers were able to create a complete picture. The clothing and hairstyles used are flawless and were inspired by yearbook and newspaper photos of the time. They provide the finishing touch on the re-creation of the world that the Coen brothers grew up in.
Although the majority of the film has strongly Jewish overtones, including a sprinkling of Hebrew words that some characters do not even know the meaning of, Joel and Ethan Coen aim not to help people understand the Jewish experience, but to present a specific way of living in a specific time period. They intended to use those settings to help tell a particular story. The emphasis on Jewish culture in the film is not the focus of the story, but allows the story to take place, giving it a different air and forcing the audience to follow the advice of one of the rabbis in the film and look at things from a new perspective.