Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed
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When the truth is found to be lies / And all the joy within you dies / Don’t you want somebody to love?
Translating Homer’s Odyssey into a mid-Western road trip. Turning to a barber for some monochrome melodrama. These are not the acts of one auteur. They’re the act of two. The Coen brothers are cinema’s most idiosyncratic couple. Who else would jump from Burn after Reading’s FBI farce to the Jewish suburbs of 1967? Let alone start the film with a 10 minute fable, entirely in Yiddish?
Crazy and creative, they started out mature all those years ago and only seem to get better with age. 25 years after their debut Blood Simple, 2009’s A Serious Man just might be their best. It’s certainly one of their deepest.
Larry Gupnick’s (Stuhlbarg) life is going off the rails. Or at least, the rails are rapidly disappearing. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), is leaving him. His son is soon to come of age, but is more concerned about stealing money to buy pot. One of his students wants to bribe him for a pass grade. And his colleague, Sy (Melamed), is the one joining Judith once they’re separated. Up for tenure and down on his luck, Larry is lost. And so he turns to his church for help.
He consults three rabbis – one young, one old, one useless. Why is he here? Why is he suffering? Why are the police after his brother, Arthur? But this is Coen territory and solutions are scarce. In place of explanations, we get humour; finding the folly in everyday awkwardness, the Coens trip out their usual absurdities with polished precision. Magazine subscriptions, student-tutor relations, parking lots. Everything is fair game. In their hands, even a man sitting silently in a chair is laugh-out-loud funny. Pounding it all out against the sounds of Jefferson Airplane, this is them at the top of their game.
Also on form is Michael Stuhlbarg. Weathering the storm of stupidity, his struggle to be a serious man immediately inspires sympathy. That’s partly thanks to Stuhlbarg, whose screen presence (and comic timing) has a natural charm; another actor in the role could easily come across as whiney or self-centred. Here, he’s neurotic, mad, frustrated, but always likeable.
The other cast members all give quality performances too (with Fred Melamed’s mellifluous and smug “serious man” a real stand-out) but Larry’s the one we root for. Why? It’s also because his frantic search for significance rings true with all of us. Surrounded by idiots, most of whom talk in wonderfully educated ways, Larry falls in and out of religion with every passing second. Teaching chaos mathematics in a world with no meaning, Larry’s existence is laughable. Hilariously so.
Why does God give us all these problems? And if God wants us to ask such things, why doesn’t he give us the answers? “He hasn’t told me that yet,” says one rabbi, too busy nattering about teeth to query the bigger picture. Packed with existential enigma, the Coen Brothers have painted a personal portrait of the world they grew up in and, in doing so, created one of cinema’s most accurate depictions of faith – and all its ridiculous (and irrelevant?) stubbornness.
The period detail is perfectly observed, which adds to its honesty, but it’s their understanding of doubt and dogma that carries the comedy’s realistic punch. Tracking through a child’s ear canal out into the wider world, they confront and embrace the known unknowns with an witty, intellectual philosophy – one that throws a whirlwind of chaos in the face of belief and raises a simple question: don’t you need somebody to love?