There are many movies that try to depict the life of a man going into shambles with dysfunctional family members, work problems and the unfortunate process of seeking guidance that ultimately leads to disappointment, or even further confusion.
Even fewer movies are able to go about such heart-rending events with a thick, syrupy black humor that the Coen brothers have. With “A Serious Man” they deliver a picture that is both funny and sad about a man who knows himself, his morals, and his intellect, and yet suffers setback after setback.
Larry Gopnik, a Jewish professor at a university in a mid-western town, is that man.
In the period of a few weeks, he finds everything that he once thought of as a simple and straightforward life crumples up and falls over.
Gopnik, played by the exceptional Michael Stuhlbarg, has a genuine charm as he is confronted with one disastrous event after another with a kind of utmost shock, surprise and believable outrage at God.
For example, his wife, Judith, drops a divorce wish early on in the film as he is grading his students absentmindedly, kick starting a domino effect in Gopnik’s life.
His reaction only worsens when it is discovered that his wife desires to be with Sy Ableman, played with the disingenuous charm of Fred Melamed.
Sy seeks to ease the breaking up process by embracing Larry and giving him a bottle of wine as a peace offering, making the generally awkward process of separating, even more awkward.
Cornered by his uncaring wife and her newfound love, Gopnik is manipulated into leaving his house into a motel called, “The Jolly Roger.”
Compounding Larry’s problems is his brilliant, but emotionally stunted brother, Albert, whose intellectual genius resulted in a method to give him an unfair advantage in card games through the use of mathematics, not unlike counting cards.
Albert often attracts the attention of law enforcement and even hogs the bathroom more often than not, draining his cyst on the back of his neck with a tube and a machine, which made the audience squirm with every disgusting noise.
Albert’s time spent in the household’s only bathroom is a thorn in the side of Gopniks daughter, Sarah, who pilfers money from his wallet when he leaves it unattended.
There is no honor among thieves, as Larry’s other child, a young red-headed boy named Danny soon proves, stealing the same amount of money from his sister.
Danny is a bit of a delinquent, skipping school and smoking marijuana, while running away from a much larger kid whom he owed money to, not to mention using Colombia House to get records through a subscription, which bites into Larry’s already strained budget, and generally shows complete obliviousness to his fathers problems.
The local marijuana dealer, Mrs. Samsky, frequently sunbathes in the nude in her supposedly safe-from-view backyard, and on a chance visit to his roof to fix the television antenna, Gopkin catches sight of her and stares until he passes out from the heat getting to him in hilarious fashion.
Even his work isn’t safe from the cruelties of life, as a tenure board committee member ‘tries’ to alleviate his stress on his pending tenure, only to exacerbate it even more as he tells him that the committee was receiving anonymous letters condemning Larry.
Furthermore, he wages a heroic battle of morals against a student who tries to bribe him, weighing his morals against $3,000 for a simple grade change from an F to a passing grade. When he tries to take the high road, he soon has the student’s father on his case, threatening him with a defamation lawsuit.
This movie is rife with dark humor, which some people might not get or appreciate. The trials that Larry Gopkin goes through would break some men, and most certainly would not be humorous to a lot of people, and shows insight to the banal life small towns have.
But thanks to the Cohen brothers, and superb acting by Stuhlbarg, who plays Gopkin as a bewildered man watching his entire world begin to catch fire and burn around him, finds little to no solace in the rabbi’s he desperately seeks guidance from.
This movie takes humor and elevates it. There are no huge, boisterous laughs, and sometimes things would begin to seem weird and disorienting.
But make no mistake, “A Serious Man” delivers chuckles, intelligent thought, and is rife with metaphors without it being saturated in them, all at the expense of a serious man.
Dan Sayles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.