Coens’ latest a Serious pleasure

by Glen Baity

The world according to Joel and Ethan Coen is a profoundly unsettling place. Even in the best of times, it is filled with uncertainty and pettiness. Violence bubbles beneath the surface, waiting for a crack big enough to explode through. And honest people constantly find themselves struggling against a merciless tide with little to steady them.

This is true of pretty much all their movies, be they comedies like The Big Lebowski, dark farces like last year’s Burn After Reading or tragedies like the inimitable Fargo. It doesn’t matter — the Coen brothers are so well-regarded because of their ability to alter a film’s mood while constantly returning to the same themes and motifs.

Consider one of their favorites: the putupon hero, of which nebbish Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is their latest. In A Serious Man, the tenure-tracked professor lives a life fraught with indignities. His wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a condescending new suitor; his brother (Richard Kind) is a bundle of neuroses; his son (Aaron Wolff), on the verge of his bar mitzvah, is stealing money to pay off the local pot dealer; and his worst student (David Kang) wants to bribe his way out of a failing grade, which occurs while Larry is drowning in legal fees.

Increasingly distraught, he seeks counsel from a series of rabbis, each offering advice more puzzling and frustrating than the last. A Serious Man is Larry’s quest to make sense of the insane events unfolding around him and to internalize the lesson that begins the film: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Who among us can’t relate?

The Coens love a meandering story, and A Serious Man certainly fits the mold. It’s a film that takes the directors’ gift for portent to a new level, in which dread is abstract but palpable enough to propel the action. It’s also all the things a Coen movie usually is: suspenseful, beautifully acted and unpredictable.

In an ensemble like this, it’s hard to single out anyone, but attention must be paid to Stuhlbarg, a relative unknown whose assured performance as a modernday Job is one of the year’s best. Also turning in near-perfect support work is Richard Kind. His Uncle Arthur might be a crackpot genius or just a crackpot — either way, his erratic behavior increases in proportion to Larry’s anxiety, and Kind runs away with every scene they share. It’s a complicated relationship, and unpacking it is one of the film’s many joys.

After the madcap romp that was Burn After Reading and the beautiful, bloody nightmare of No Country For Old Men, it’s nice to see the Coen brothers explore more ponderous territory. A Serious Man is understated and at times surreal; its closest relative in the Coen family tree is probably Barton Fink. It also feels oddly personal — one has to imagine that the late ’60s Minnesota of the film closely resembles the Coens’ own childhood.

It’s impressive to see that world recreated so expertly. It bears mentioning that A Serious Man, full of references to Semitic customs and culture, is the rare film that portrays the everyday lives of Jewish people in America. I’ll admit that there are probably elements that were lost on me (born Methodist in a small North Carolina town), but at no point did I feel like an unwelcome outsider. That’s the beauty of a Coen brothers film: It creates a world that’s easy to walk into and difficult to leave once the credits roll. A Serious Man is probably too gradually paced and low-key to win Lebowski-like levels of adoration from a wide audience. Never mind that — it’s still one of the best films of 2009, an accomplished, fascinating picture that is sure to reward repeat viewings.

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