A Serious Man

Director    Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring    Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff
Release    2 OCT (US) 20 NOV (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


21st November 2009

According to the Shr'dinger's Cat paradox, if you put a cat in a sealed box with a vial of poison that has a 50-50 chance of being released and killing the cat (sorry cat lovers), then until the box is unsealed, the cat is neither alive or dead. It exists in both states until the box is unsealed and the cat is observed to be one thing or the other.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a middle-aged, middle-class Jewish physics professor, spends his days explaining this notion to his students both philosophically and mathematically. He understands the mechanics and the rules of this proposition. But when it comes to his own life, he cannot decipher the mysterious laws that govern it. When things start to disintegrate around him, Larry desperately searches for meaning in the chaos.

Larry's problems are numerous. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so she can be with her new man Sy Ableman (Fred Malamed). Sy is a serious man, smug and forceful, unlike Larry, who strives to be serious, but finds himself stifled by the ridiculous, always getting caught up in the minutiae of life. The TV aerial must be fixed; he must pay for a Jefferson Airplane record he has never set eyes on; his children are demanding and ungrateful; he is being bribed by one of his students; his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) won't move out of Larry's house and gets into trouble with the police; his neighbour is a bigot; and someone is making complaints about him that threaten his university tenure.

Larry also experiences his own Shr'dinger moment when a double car crash occurs in the film. Science offers no comfort, so Larry turns to his religion. The rabbis he consults recite fables and anecdotes by rote, much like the curious opening scene of the film depicting a nineteenth-century Polish folk story. The blas' clich's of the rabbis make Larry feel more lost and frustrated. In comparison, namesake Larry David's day-to-day life seems like a cakewalk.

[gallery]The description above makes A Serious Man sound unduly heavy. The Coen Brothers' humour and flare for deadpan dialogue ensures that it is not. The Coen brand of humour works best when it is blended with the serious. The tone is pitched perfectly, derived from the clash of the lofty and the mundane - the existential crisis and the broken TV aerial. When the Coens combine the sublime and the ridiculous, they are at their peak. Burn After Reading tilted too far towards the ridiculous, but A Serious Man, for all its seriousness, is very funny. A healthy injection of silliness helps the film along its way too, particularly from the group of dopehead potty-mouthed kids Larry's son hangs out with.

As with Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There, Michael Stuhlbarg's central performance carries the film. He conveys every crushing second of Larry's tale superbly. Stuhlbarg is supported by a cast of characters who are, by Coen standards, not as eccentric as you might expect. Richard Kind is excellent as Larry's troubled brother, while the closest thing to a scene-stealer is Fred Malamed's performance as Sy Ableman. He is a giant of a man with a cavernous voice and Sy is wonderfully frank, sticking out like a sore thumb in retentive 1960s suburbia.

The Coen Brothers' decision to cast relative unknowns shifts the focus from the stars to the movie itself. It also means that despite the fact that the Coens are now big hitters, the distribution of this film is limited. Which sucks, obviously. But it does mean that the Coens have effectively stuck two fingers up at the Hollywood establishment after the Oscar love-in accompanying No Country For Old Men and the movie star vehicle Burn After Reading.

Joel and Ethan Coen grew up in Minneapolis with professors for parents and they admit that A Serious Man is their most autobiographical work to date. There is certainly a more personal touch to this film. The usual Coen staples of botched crimes and life on the run are replaced with an examination of family life.

There's no mistaking a Coen picture though; the usual collaborators may be absent in front of the camera, but Roger Deakins' cinematography, Carter Burwell's music and a judicious scattering of other hallmarks - untimely death, circular shapes, the unmistakable dialogue - make A Serious Man quintessentially Coen. The ending, phenomenal and infuriating, does Shr'dinger and his feline friend proud.

A Serious Man is a brilliant, intelligent film, free of gimmicks, made by people who truly know their craft. It is not epic, or easily summarised, or neatly resolved. In other words, this is no Oscar winner, and that's exactly the film the Coen Brothers set out to make.

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