The Coen brothers are ace architects of the absurd. In their new film, “A Serious Man,” Ethan and Joel Coen kick it up a notch by assembling a kaleidoscope of kooks whose names are virtually unknown.
The brothers return to their roots — 1967 suburban Minneapolis — and find Larry Gopnik, a character loosely based on their own father. A college professor and middle-aged Jewish father, Larry seems to be the poster guy for the successful Midwestern everyman. Not so. Suddenly, his wife leaves him for his best friend, a student tries to blackmail him for a passing grade, his son is a pothead, and his daughter secretly steals money from him for a nose job.
In utter disbelief, Larry turns to his rabbis for advice and gets nowhere (one actually quotes lines from Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”). Incredibly, Larry takes everything in stride, ever hopeful that things will return to normal and he can once again live his life as the serious individual he once was.
But, we all know the Coen brothers won’t let that happen — Larry’s doomed. Ethan Coen admits, “The fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture Larry.” And, that they do. As poor Larry keeps asking, “Why me?” the audience is kept on high-wince alert while Ethan and Joel Coen chuckle behind the cameras.
There are two familiar faces in “A Serious Man”... that of Richard Kind (“Scrubs”) and Adam Arkin (“Northern Exposure”). The rest are just absolutely perfectly cast unknown actors whom you’ve seen before but can’t quite place. Michael Stuhlbarg’s ingeniously-inspired performance as Larry-the-loser is the cornerstone of this dark delicacy. The brothers have a knack for whacks, and this film’s full of them.
Larry’s hope is infectious. In the end, we know deep down inside, having been a righteous man, he will prevail. But, as “A Serious Man” comes to a close, Larry receives a phone call from his doctor and a tornado is about to slam into his son’s school. Take that, you wishful thinkers.
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