Did I mention that “A Serious Man” is a comedy?
The rap on the Coen brothers (“No Country for Old Men,” “Burn After Reading”) has long been that they’re gifted filmmakers, but hobbled by a sadistic streak with their characters. That criticism is unlikely to be dispelled by "A Serious Man," a comedy so pitch-black, it might require a night-light. But in this contextually rich and deeply personal film, the Coens are surprisingly straightforward about their preoccupation with human suffering.
As portrayed by theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg ("Body of Lies"), Larry is a good-natured mensch suddenly under assault. His son (Aaron Wolff) is more worried about paying his pot dealer than preparing for his bar mitzvah. His daughter (Jessica McManus) is stealing money from him for a nose job. Larry's brother (Richard Kind, "The Visitor") sleeps on the couch and has no interest in finding a job.
Most painful of all, Larry's wife (Sari Lennick) announces she wants a divorce so she can marry Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, "Hollywood Ending"), a patronizing widower. Larry's sole respite is a sexy neighbor (Amy Landecker, "Dan in Real Life") who sunbathes topless.
The filmmaking on display is meticulous, almost oppressively so. One gets the sense that every camera shot and actors' gesture are the result of painstaking deliberation. The Coens' penchant for perfectionism has been suffocating at times (think of the hermetically sealed "The Hudsucker Proxy") but here, such precision seems wholly appropriate, an approximation of Larry's growing fatalism.
Brilliant and uproariously funny, the movie earns a spot alongside such Coen classics as "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski" and "Barton Fink." But "A Serious Man" is more intimate — not surprising given that the brothers grew up during the film's setting of 1960s Minnesota. It makes sense, then, that "A Serious Man" also achieves a remarkable sense of place and time. Every detail, no matter how seemingly innocuous, feels right.
It helps that the Coens have assembled a cast of terrific, largely unknown actors. Stuhlbarg has an affable humanity that keeps Larry from dissolving into parody. And if Melamed doesn't earn an Oscar nomination for his scene-stealing work, the United Nations needs to start monitoring the ballots.
Some viewers, I suspect, will size up "A Serious Man" as the product of moviemakers who see the universe as bleak, disorderly and scary. "Why does He make us feel the questions if He's not going to give us any answers?" asks an at-the-end-of-his-rope Larry.
But it seems to this reviewer that the Coens are suggesting that such answers are a little outside the pay grade of mere mortals. Perhaps the answers are everywhere, even in the lyrics of a Jefferson Airplane song.
Or perhaps not.
"You have to see these things as an expression of God's will," a rabbi tells Larry. "You don't have to like it." Thankfully, Joel and Ethan Coen know how to make futility a hell of a lot of fun. —Phil Bacharach