A black comedy set in 1967 and centered on Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg), a Midwestern professor who watches his life unravel when his wife prepares to leave him because his inept brother (Kind) won't move out of the house.
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The everyday man, Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) suddenly finds his life spiraling out of control in A Serious Man, a film that blends dark comedy with religious undertones. A Serious Man is a modern retelling of the biblical story of Job through the eyes of the Cohen Brothers. Larry is a hard worker, faithful husband, loving father and caring brother. But his faith is tested when his life, for unexplained reason, becomes embroiled with bad luck. Everyday seems to get worst and worst for Larry from a crumbling marriage, bribery, lawsuit, his dead beat gambling brother, and his chances for securing tenure gradually fading away.
Larry seeks help from a lawyer, three rabbis, a dentist, and the sexy next door neighbor whose answer to Larry’s problems is pot. The first rabbi is young and inexperienced comparing Larry’s issues to an empty parking lot. The second rabbi recalls a story of a dentist who finds Hebrew writing in the back of his patient’s teeth.
For months the dentist tries to discover the meaning behind the writing, but to no avail, so the dentist continues on with his life. Larry, in a funny scene, is unable to find correlation between the dentist and himself, and waits for the rabbi to explain the moral. There is none. The rabbi just felt like telling a story. He even looks surprised that Larry expected more.
The lawyer is the only one who actually sympathizes with Larry both on a personal level, and from a financial standpoint. He advises Larry to reconcile with his wife through financial means rather than appealing to her emotions, which clearly she lacks in regards to Larry. However there is a break through. The lawyer brings in another divorce attorney who may have the answer to Larry’s problem. As soon as he takes a seat, the attorney drops dead. Certainly one of the best scenes in the film as Larry and his lawyer stare at the dead attorney completely unclear on what just happened.
Finally he turns to the third rabbi, an old wise man that everyone in town respects because of his wisdom and ability to find answers to difficult questions. Before entering the rabbi’s office, Larry speaks with the secretary asking for permission to see the rabbi. She gets up, goes into the next room, comes back, and tells Larry the rabbi is busy. When Larry peeks into the next room, he sees the rabbi sitting behind a desk staring off into space.
In casting for the role, the Cohen Brothers wanted someone new, unfamiliar to the general audience, and it was a wise choice. Those familiar with theater may recognize Stuhlbarg who’s won several awards including a Tony for his on stage performances. Stuhlbarg is terrific as the anxious and beaten down professor with a soft voice struggling to control is inner rage. Every depressing and degrading moment, you can’t help but sympathize for Larry. His faith is constantly being tested and his character as a good natured person is stretched to the breaking point. But he never breaks.
The humor is in the details. There are several funny moments between Larry and his wife’s new beau Sy Ableman (Melamed) who talks in a soft patronizing tone and always greets Larry with a hug. The Cohen Brothers shine a light on characters you see every day but never notice. The filmmakers even poke fun at the mundane simple parts of life, such as getting harassing calls from telemarketers trying to scare you into paying for a product you never wanted in the first place.
While some may find the humor too bland, dry or slow, the story is still compelling supported with the religious undertones that questions the idea behind faith. Can faith alone provide happiness? Watching his son’s bar mitzvah brings a sense of relief and joy over Larry and soon after his life gradually gets back on track, for a while anyway. The ending is left open ended not because it’s setting up for a sequel, but because there is no ending to a story like this. Life just goes on, for better or for worst.
A Serious Man