A Serious Man is the story of an ordinary man’s search for clarity in a universe where Jefferson Airplane is on the radio and “F-Troop” is on TV. It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous colleagues, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry’s unemployable brother Arthur is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job.
While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry’s chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person — a mensch — a serious man?
The Coen brother’s A Serious Man plays out in an extremely weird but oddly charming and comforting manner. On the surface, everything about the film feels like it shouldn’t work when you describe it to somebody. But thankfully, the Coen brothers (in typical Coen brothers fashion) proved me wrong with their incredible tale of life that has sprinkles of dark-humor but never strays too far from its bizarre but oddly captivating story.
It deals with themes such as our purpose in the world in ways that I have never seen done before. It’s truly a wonderous film to watch for several reasons. Not only is the screenplay always moving and fresh, but it also boasts a list of excellent performances, namely from Michael Stuhlbarg as our protagonist Larry Gopnik. Here, Stuhlbarg delivers one of his best and most nuanced performances to date. He feels quiet and reserved while also being somewhat relatable to the audience.
Something else that stood out greatly was the cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins, who is my personal favorite cinematographer. While watching the movie, I was not aware that Deakins shot the film, but I knew the film looked great for a reason. There are tons of wide shots that were beautiful to look at, while some were tragic and cold. Especially the final shot of the film. In fact, that’s a great way to describe A Serious Man; a tragic, cold film in all the best ways. It’s funny, it can be uplifting, but it can also be depressing in a great way.
A Serious Man manages to excellently blend dark humor with a depressing yet oddly captivating story that is further boosted by Michael Stuhlbarg’s nuanced lead performance.
Overall Grade: A
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality/nudity, and brief violence
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Distributed by: Focus Features
Release Date: October 2, 2009
Running Time: 106 minutes