Another exemplary effort for Joel and Ethan Coen dares viewers and pundits to get at the meat of the cinematic work. It probably skewers more specialized than mainstream viewership given its virtually total cast of unknowns (at least for those outside of larger entertainment circles).
A Serious Man appears to be quasi-autobiographical given the setting of 1967 St. Louis Park, Minnesota middle-class Jewish neighborhood with all the details from a neighbor, a rabbi, a boy just before his bar mitzvah all in place for another original tale with thematic resonance. It's the kind of effort that makes sense for the sensibly sarcastic siblings with an Oscar under their belt.
This deviously delightful, increasingly dark comedy concerns Midwestern physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg), establishing a moral and convenient ambivalence from his life which is well-manicured in suburbia with a wife and two kids.
His seemingly ordered existence begins to be threatened when the professor procrastinates a decision by locking an awkward bribe made by one of his failing students in his desk drawer. Larry's staid and stable life really starts to become undone when his wife (Sari Lennick) announces she's leaving him for another (a serious) man, while his socially inept, gambling-addict, jobless brother (Richard Kind) refuses to move out of his house as well. And, his son (on the verge of an important rite of passage) appears to only want to talk to him about the antenna for better television reception.
This arguably personal film by the enigmatic helmers (and scribes) starts with a creative opening set in a 19th-century Polish hamlet about an old man, his wife and an adulated rabbi, who could be a dybbuk (a spirit in need of human possession). Some may wonder if this and what follows is intended to reflect the Coens childhood, but it is solid, precise filmmaking, even if the unsympathetic characterizations is part of a sardonic take on Judaism and its culture as a whole.
Here, it's clear that Broadway actor and Tony-nominated Stuhlberg immerses himself into the self-doubt and wretchness as Larry's life can be scary when everything is up to him. For the limited publicity of A Serious Man trailers indicated the pressure and pain as Larry looks to the local synagogue higher-ups for assistance.
In this ghostly, wizened gaze which some may be looked at as a bit long-winded and self-important, a wry crack into the emotional underpinnings still manages to have a subtle, ironic power similar to the filmmakers' most lauded in their oeurve like Fargo and No Country For Old Men. Now, the put-upon complexities are a part of the tension that has well-crafted, wacky weight on family, religion and morality.