The Cohen brothers head for the deep end - with hilarious, results - Aaron Wolff as stoner teen, Michael Stuhlbarg as put upon dad
This Time It's Personal:
A Serious Man
10-14-09 "Knight Thoughts" web exclusive
By Richard Knight, Jr.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Cohen brothers picture that I haven’t had reservations about. I’m still trying to figure out all
the fuss over their more recent “weighty movies” like No Country For Old Men and (especially) The Man Who Wasn’t There. In between
these two efforts, dating back to 2001, there have been a spate of their more typical fare – the bitter black comedies that are their
signature. Each of these has had moments of hilarity and cultural insight and each has been flawed (some more than others). Now
comes A Serious Man which finds the Cohen brothers offering up a telling blend of their weighty and dark edged films. The result
is a profoundly disturbing movie – all the more so because it’s so damned hilarious. I think it’s a great film; one that is finally
worthy of all the hoopla that usually attends the Cohen’s movies.
Maybe because this time it feels personal. Though clearly the Cohen’s have used the Biblical story of Job – set in the summer of
1967 in Jewish suburbia in Minnesota – as their template, it’s easy to surmise that the characters in the movie – the dysfunctional
family of poor put upon Job nee Larry Gopnik (newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg in a career launching performance), his petty wife who
wants a divorce, bratty teenage, hair washing daughter, 13 year-old Danny (Aaron Wolff) who is just about to have his Bar Mitzvah,
and the annoying, live in uncle (Richard Kind) with his mysterious, gross out neck ailment and nefarious activities who never comes
out of the bathroom – have been drawn from the Cohen’s own background.
Though ostensibly Larry, a physics professor who endures an endless series of humiliations petty and large (a recurring, hilarious
motif includes a series of threatening phone calls from a representative for Columbia Record Club – remember those?) and personal
setbacks (Larry’s wife wants a divorce, there’s a hint of a cancer scare, he’s involved in a car accident, etc.), is the leading character
who drives the movie it’s Danny, the disaffected pot smoking slacker at the onset of the drug age who listens to Jefferson Airplane,
runs to escape a neighborhood bully, and really only seems to care about watching “F-Troop,” his favorite show that one suspects is
the stand in for the Cohen’s themselves. As Larry faces each new indignity with mounting, barely concealed hysteria, the picture
builds towards its climax – the Bar Mitzvah ceremony which seems to only allow for the briefest of respites before the next potential
cataclysm sets in.
To realize this story of a “serious man” having his faith tested the Cohen’s have enlisted their usual team of crack collaborators
(Roger Deakins on cinematography, Roderick James on editing, Carter Burwell providing another haunting score, et al). They have
chosen a group of actors mostly unknown to film audiences (Adam Arkin and Kind are the exceptions). Stuhlbarg, like other Cohen
discoveries (everyone from Frances McDormand to William H. Macy) is a tremendous find. With his bushy eyebrows furrowed with
anxiety and light speaking voice controlling his barely suppressed anger, Stuhlbarg makes for a marvelous Jewish Everyman who is
actor enough to humanize the caricature. The picture – which has remnants of A Walk on the Moon, Taking Woodstock, and harkens
back to the Jewish wedding comedy Lovers and Other Strangers – is rife with hilarious and annoying stereotypical Jewish characters
which may set more politically correct filmgoers on edge. But characters who propagate outsized stereotypes are nothing new for the
Cohen’s (think back to the hayseeds and white trash of Raising Arizona, the Min-uh-sew-tons of Fargo, and the stoners of The Big
Lebowski, for example) and have always driven their comedies – and they do so again here – spectacularly.
A Serious Man shares similar reflective qualities with the Woody Allen pictures Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors and
the Cohen’s view is just as dark and much more viscously observed. This is comedy with a razor – a great big, Sweeney Todd sized
one. The signature dark delights that the Cohen brothers have given us in their movies – each with its unsentimental, dog eat dog
outlook – is finally somewhat explained by A Serious Man. In the process of revealing a bit of themselves at long last, the reticent
filmmakers have created a movie that lives up to their advance press.
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