The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man is a dark and light comedy-drama about looking for God in the world, about family, faith and stress, and mostly about the lingering mysteries of life which are never quite explained or resolved, but which always seem to be standing somewhere near the things that give our lives meaning, hinting at deeper truths.
I had heard before seeing it that it was a retelling of the story of Job, which features God and Lucifer in starring roles, and I wondered exactly how this could play out in a film about a mathematics professor and observant Jew in Minnesota in the 1960s.
I was thinking a lot of tweaking would be required, and indeed it's not a programmatic interpretation of the Bible story. But in another way, it does hit most of the plot points of the Job story, and all of the emotional ones, in a very satisfying and effective way, without taking away from the reality of the more modern tale being told.
Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, the titular professor, and, just as with Job, the hits start coming fast and seemingly out of the blue, threatening to consume his stable and (as far as he knew) happy life in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs with two kids and a wife. First a failing grade prompts a bribery/blackmail scheme in which whatever move Gopnik might make would probably be wrong. Then a conversation with his wife destroys the illusion of his happy marriage, presenting him with more bad choices. Stuhlbarg is perfectly cast and indeed note-perfect as a faithful man with quandaries.
He gets lots of unsolicited advice for his problems, and seeks out more, chiefly from the three rabbis of his congregation, who are at the same time quite helpful and not helpful at all. Luckily, Gopnik is a thinking man, and finds ways to take even the most saccharine of platitudes and do his best to apply them in useful ways for himself, his family and his actions under stress. As outrageous and unsettling incidents pile up, Gopnik is anything but a tower of strength, though he shows a lot of strength, but he never crumbles, either, despite the genuine and mounting difficulties he faces. He finds strength where he can--chiefly from his family, his self-estimated place in the world, and what is really needed from him--and compromises only where he must.
The film is full of great performances, notably from Aaron Wolff as Larry's son Danny, Sari Lennick as Larry's wife Sarah, Fred Melamed as her touchy-feely lover Sy Ableman, Richard Kind as Gopnik's failure of a brother, David Kang as the disgruntled mathematics student, Simon Helberg, George Wyner and Alan Mandell as three rabbis, Alan Arkin as Larry's divorce lawyer, Amy Landecker as Mrs. Samsky, and especially Fyvush Finkel as a mysterious traveler.
The visual story melds seemlessly with the emotional story as the gorgeous play of light, image and editing unfolds. Fades out of and into darkness and pure white have their own grammar and reasons for being, sunlit meditative moments for Larry are sunlit meditative moments for the audience, and a tale which is very much about storytelling explores plot, suspense, beauty, silence and mystery with the meticulously aware touch of the master filmmakers.
The unanswered questions are as profound and illuminating as the answered ones. The film is as simple, and as complex, as truthful and richly textured as any Rembrandt, and of a similar quality, and school.
A Serious Man is very funny, and simultaneously a very serious movie. It's subtle, beautiful, deep, enthralling, suspenseful and gratifying to watch, both in its visual movement and its story arc. It's one of the best movies of the year.
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