Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed and Sari Lennick
Larry Gopnick: It’s not always easy to decipher what God is trying to tell us.
Let alone deciphering, it isn’t always that easy even hearing what God is trying to tell us most of the time. Imagine trying to hear God speak to you when you walk in the house at the end of an incredibly long day, only to hear your trouble-making son complain about how the television reception is off, your daughter complaining about how the uncle that is staying with you never leaves the bathroom so that she can do her hair and your wife, after barely acknowledging your presence, asking when you’re going to make that appointment with the divorce lawyer. This is Larry Gopnick’s life, as told by Joel and Ethan Coen in their latest and most personal film, A SERIOUS MAN. Clearly, God is trying to tell Larry something about his life but with the Coen’s playing God, it isn’t the least bit surprising that there is nothing clear about it at all.
A SERIOUS MAN takes place in 1967 in the suburban Midwest. This would be about the time and place that the Coen’s were coming into their own as young men. Larry, his eclectic family and his neighbours were inspired by a pastiche of the adults that surrounded the young filmmakers during that time. And while this is without question their most personal work, it is by no means an autobiography of their own family. What it is, is a morality tale about one man, who could be any man, and his test in life. Yes, this man is a serious man; he tries to do right by others and himself and for him, this is the definition of taking life seriously. How can we take life this way though when there are so many factors beyond our control and how can we then turn to God for both guidance and blame?
The Coen’s here delight in taunting the powers that be in a day when people are looking for answers from powers as vague and as vast as the universe itself. The story is set long before these days but we cannot help but watch from our current perspective. Adding an extra layer of existentialism is the devout Judaism of almost the entire cast. The film opens with a tale of a couple who inadvertently invite a dybbuk (the soul of a dead person) into their home, subsequently cursing their family for eternity. It isn’t confirmed whether Larry Gopnick is a direct descendent of these two but with everything he has to go through, you’ve got to assume he must be. The deep roots that ground Judaism in tradition and bond its people to each other and to their God don’t necessarily provide answers as welll and while this could be interpreted as criticism, it feels more like a sympathetic and jovial send-up instead.
At the center of it all, there is an ordinary man going through an extraordinarily difficult time that he cannot seem to take control of regardless of the efforts he makes. The Tony-nominated stage actor, Michael Stuhlbarg, cements that center with a remarkably memorable performance. His face may be weathered but it is also one of genuine earnest that is increasingly more stupefied with every new burden he must bear. His misfortune inspires both sympathy and big laughs, proving that we all know that life is hard; that we’ve all been there to some extent and that if we were lucky enough to get out of there, we can look back and laugh. And try as he might to be that serious man at all costs, the one lesson that Larry cannot seem to grasp is that no matter how hard we fight, maybe some of us are just plain cursed to begin with.