Perhaps the least accessible, and therefore lesser appreciated, film from the Coen brothers, A Serious Man is a comedy purportedly based on their time growing up in a mostly Jewish community in 1960’s Minnesota.
Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) finds his life quickly unraveling when his wife tells him she’s leaving him for his friend and he goes to three different rabbis for advice, trying to find meaning in his suffering. But things quickly go from bad to worse. Someone is challenging his application for tenure. His brother Arthur, who is staying on their couch, is in trouble with the law. His son is smoking pot instead of preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. His daughter is stealing money to save up for a nose job. His wife wants him to move into a motel. His legal fees are mounting. His neighbor is ignoring property lines. A student is trying to bribe him. And this is just the beginning.
Throughout all this, in his search for God’s reasons, Gopnik never really challenges what’s happening to him. He’s not one to say no or confront things head on, which is where much of the comedy comes from within the film, but also perhaps the reason why it divides audiences. No one in this film is really very nice or caring, they all have an agenda and Gopnik does not go through a transformation and learn to fight. So, what’s the meaning of this film? Well, much like Gopnik himself discovers, there are not always easy answers to life questions, and you can read into this film a few ways. Which is part of what makes it a good film.
The attention to detail that the Coen brothers have gone to to create the 1960’s they remember is delightful. The music, the clothes, the décor are all impeccable reproductions of an era that was almost cartoonish by present fashion standards, in it’s love of colour and shape. But unlike the era known for breaking rules and living free, Gopnik is definitely buttoned up. It’s a different kind of film than the normal drama or comedy, and ultimately it’s rewarding and at times very funny.
EXTRAS: Hebrew and Yiddish for Goys, Becoming Serious, Creating 1967