Much like their radical departure in 2007's Oscar-winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, writer-directors Ethan Coen and Joel Coen defies expectations again with A SERIOUS MAN, arguably their most personal film ever made. While their new movie is a black comedy, it's really nothing like they ever done before. In fact, the comedy is so bleak that it's a tough sell even for fans who admire the Coen brothers' work. And here lies the biggest problem -- it's a seriously unconventional movie about faith, family, mortality and misfortune. Such subject matters are of course, very familiar but it's hardly universal at all. Not at least in the Coen brothers' dictionary. Suffice to say, it's a difficult movie to get hooked at or worst still, hard to laugh at because it paints a deeply cryptic metaphor about the Jewish community. Unless you have certain understanding about the Jewish, this is an otherwise tough movie to sit through.
The movie begins with a striking but odd-looking opening scene in some century ago, where Shtetl couple (Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson) are being visited by a bearded old man (Fyvush Finkel) who is supposed to die three years earlier. The Shtetl superstitious wife believes that the old man may be a dybbuk -- a spirit possessing a human's body. After a short conversation, she sticks a knife in his chest. The old man doesn't seems to feel any pain at all, even though he's bleeding from the wound. He is then excused himself and walks out of the door, disappearing into nowhere. The scene itself sounds like a prologue straight out from a supernatural horror movie, but what happens next is entirely different story altogether. (Yes, I found the opening scene is really confusing and somehow can't seem to connect the dot of what the Coen brothers trying to tell us, other than impress us with their moviemaking craft). Cut to Minnesota, 1967 in which we are focusing on a Jewish math professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg). On the surface, Gopnik is a regular family man that lives his life in a routine fashion. However his world is about to unravel in a series of misfortune events that cost him dearly. It begins with his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick) finally had enough and demands him for a divorce because she has been falling in love with their acquaintance Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). His problem doesn't just stop there: His mentally-unstable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) who moves in with him, is giving him a headache; a Korean student named Clive (David Kang) offers Larry a bribe for a passing grade; and his children -- teenage daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) spends most of her time in front the mirror, while son Danny (Aaron Wolff) has been slacking around listening to Jefferson Airplane and getting high with his friend in the bathroom. There are just too many troubled thoughts Larry is trying to fix things around that he's about to lose control over his surroundings. So he is subsequently seeking spiritual advice from various rabbis, but to no avail. Endless anxiety and fear strikes him and eats him from inside out, bit by bit that Larry's life is going nowhere but way down to a possible crashing end.
From the cinematic standpoint, A SERIOUS MAN is a beautifully-mounted picture that all the technical values are pitch-perfect. As Minnesota natives themselves who grew up in the neighborhood, the Coen brothers knows well how to capture the exquisite period details of a '60s Midwestern suburb. Aided by cinematographer Roger Deakins, the movie is also simultaneously bleak and at times surrealistic. Carter Burwell's music score is achingly poignant while the editing, in which the Coens goes under the name of Roderick Jaynes, is well-calculated.
But the movie's biggest achievement is of course, the Coens' smart decision to cast relatively unknowns. Without doubt, the cast are uniformly strong. Among all of them, is none others than Michael Stuhlbarg in his career-defining performance as the struggling Larry Gopnik. His role is simply arresting from the minute one he appears on the screen that his sad-sack expression alone is more than enough to feel such pity for he is forced to go through.
Unfortunately their supposedly a great masterpiece-in-the-making doesn't exactly do well altogether. The Coens has definitely goes a bit too personal for their own good I must admit some of us have to crack our head to figure out what they are trying to deliver here. Their trademark brand of deadpan humor is too dry and very distant they feel uncomfortable to be laughed at all, let alone giggle. It also doesn't help when their narrative is too cryptic most of the times, especially with all the head-scratching moments involving the opening scene and of course, the non-resolution bleak finale where the movie ends abruptly with an incoming tornado threatened to hit the suburb. If the whole scenario is supposed to be a metaphor of sorts to spin a refreshing story about a hapless man's downfall, it's really hard to appreciate as one. Even their equally cryptic NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN doesn't come as frustrating as this one does. It's a misguided piece of work that should have deserves better.