out of Five
Running time: 106
Impressively directed, hugely enjoyable black comedy from the Coen Brothers, with a superb script and a terrific central performance from Michael Stuhlbarg.
What's it all about?
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man is set in 1967 Minnesota and stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Jewish college professor Larry Gopnik, whose life begins to unravel when his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) informs him that she's leaving him for their pompous acquaintance Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who she describes as “a serious man”. On top of that, Larry also has to contend with his feckless brother Arthur (Richard Kind) sleeping on their couch, his son Danny (Aaron Wolf) getting into dope-smoking in the run-up to his bar mitzvah, his daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) stealing from his wallet to fund a nose job, his Jew-hating neighbour and a topless sunbathing temptress (Amy Landecker) next door.
As if that wasn't bad enough, Larry also faces problems at work – an Asian student tries to bribe and then blackmail him for a better grade and an anonymous letter-writer is attempting to sabotage his chances for tenure. With his life spiralling out of control, Larry turns to a succession of rabbis (Simon Helberg, George Wyner and Alan Mandell) for help, but their advice is cryptic at best and proves less than inspiring.
It's strange to see a Coen brothers film without any of their usual actors (Richard Kind and Simon Helberg are probably the only recognisable faces), but Michael Stuhlbarg anchors the film with a terrific performance as Larry and there's strong support from Melamed, Lennick and Wolf, while Amy Landecker makes a striking impression with minimal dialogue in her few scenes.
Whilst not exactly autobiographical, the film is at least partly inspired by the Coens’ experiences of growing up in 1960s suburban Minnesota. The script crackles with great dialogue and is shot through with extremely dark humour; it also feels very much like a novel or one of Ethan Coen's short stories, in that it feels very personal and is much more concerned with character and atmosphere than with providing answers to its questions or easy narrative resolutions (some may find the ending less than satisfying).
A Serious Man is the Coens' most personal film to date, a hugely enjoyable black comedy with a tightly constructed script and a terrific central performance from Michael Stuhlbarg. Highly recommended.
A Serious Man (15)