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Coen Brothers Head Back to Minnesota Roots in ‘A Serious Man’

Shane Steinberg | Thursday, December 3, 2009

“No Country for Old Men” and the Coen brother’s newest film, an immaculately woven, darkest of dark comedies, “A Serious Man,” are made for each other. Like two perfectly fitted pieces of a puzzle, together they form a universally bleak view of the world and speak volumes about human isolation and the fog of religion. Surprisingly, though, without an ounce of blood dropped and no Anton Chigurh, and no brilliantly deep Cormac McCarthy passages, “A Serious Man” reduces its counterpart to “lighter fare,” and itself stands as one of the cruelest, most dreary portraits of human hope in film history. The two are perfectly complementary, yet so different in style and tone. Nonetheless, “A Serious Man” is to Judaism and Hashem what “No Country for Old Men” is to Christianity and God, the way the religion sees Him.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is getting everything but the kitchen sink thrown at him. An uninspired college professor, he anxiously awaits the university board’s decision on his tenure. Meanwhile, a student of his threatens to tear his career apart by blackmailing him for a passing grade in catch-22 fashion. To make matters worse, his seemingly ideal suburban family is anything but. His son, in order to feed his pre and post-Hebrew school weed craze, is stealing money from him, while his daughter has in turn been smuggling money out of Larry’s wallet for some time now in order to save up for a nose job. Meanwhile, the line for the bathroom is always “a minute” away from no longer being an issue, only, Larry’s genius but mentally unstable brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), simply won’t get out. Oh, and Larry’s heartless wife is leaving him for no particular reason for the patronizing, “serious man,” Sy Abelman, whose idea of a divorce is a three-person bonding affair where Larry is, in the end, left with nothing. And then there’s Larry’s deteriorating health. And there goes the kitchen sink.

Perhaps a reminiscent piece where the brothers reflect on their lives growing up in a middle-class suburban Jewish family in 1960s Minneapolis, “A Serious Man” is a breath of fresh air even amongst similarly themed films because of its distinct, culturally specific feel. But it goes from being a breath of fresh air to something truly great because of the brilliant but often transparent hand of the Coen brothers. They bring out the best in their hardly recognizable cast that includes none of their regulars, but the real success here is the marriage they form between comedy and a more than serious tragedy of the common man, which often go hand-in-hand one moment and then clash, creating a violent whirlwind of emotions the very next. Scenes of Larry breaking down out of nowhere despite remaining almost stoic throughout the rest of his ordeals contrast sharply with the film’s odd, almost misplaced humor, making the film a seeming paradox in that it’s a non-tragic tragedy.

A “non-tragic tragedy,” “A Serious Man” manages to be so incredibly dark without being over-emotive and without getting caught up in “the man,” but instead in “the man’s hope.” What “the man,” or Larry, is is a man broken down, lost, feeling as though life is choking him to death, and what he needs, as we are constantly reminded throughout the film by a piece of rock music, is “somebody to love.” That need to connect leads Larry to turn to religion and the way of Hashem to guide him through his seemingly insurmountable problems, and it’s God, or the expectation of God, that proves his undoing. Three rabbis he seeks out can’t help him and, instead, they enthuse about a parking lot, tell him a useless (albeit grandly put together music montage that proves the highlight of the film) tale of a dentist, and decline to see him, respectively.

That’s the central theme here: the need to have somebody to love, and, as the Coens put it — the bleak reality that no one is there. Not family. Not friends. Not God. We watch this unfold through the life of a man, one who we’re never supposed to identify with, but instead look down on from a bird’s eye view, almost like gods ourselves, unable or perhaps unwilling, as the film suggests, to do anything.

It’s dark. It’s darker than dark. It’s black, “A Serious Man” is. Ultimately, it’s black gold.