1 hour, 46 minutes
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
It's God, ultimately, who pulls the strings in the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man." Who else should the culprit be for the princes of manipulation? In the Coen universe of small-time men at the whim of big-time forces, there is no other omnipotence than the force of the almighty for men to contend with; you can struggle, but that's about all the room you're allowed. "A Serious Man" is also the most distilled of their movies, reeking of serious manipulation so you can feel the storyboards being shuffled away with each passing moment, as if the movie itself were the act of exorcising in order to move onto the next project. Alfred Hitchcock, whose MO can be felt cellularly in their work, once said he enjoyed the process of preproduction, but found the actual filming tedious. "A Serious Man" captures both that tedium and occasional perverse joy of watching the carefully constructed suffering inflicted upon the main character in hopes of coaxing a smile onto our faces. It's sanitized schadenfreude for the indieplex crowd.
The Coen brothers are in a unique position, after winning Academy Awards for best picture and director for "No Country for Old Men," to create whatever they want and "A Serious Man" is only one representation of that privilege. The irony here, however, is that the Coens have experienced such liberties all along. They are unique, for better or worse, in that they can work with both big and low budgets, and their proficiency is admirable (14 movies in the last 25 years) with a large cult classic status to brag of in their resumes. The Coens also are one of our most respected exports, a strange franchise of "indie" and American -- indieplex -- that can be sent to Cannes and argued over in the safety of bistros and cafes and quickly forgotten.
"A Serious Man," however, may be one of their most esoteric, a guaranteed head scratcher for armchair critics. It opens with a Jewish fairy tale detailing the story of a couple's encounter with a dybbuk -- an evil spirit -- who's guaranteed to bring bad luck for those who cross its path. This leads us literally down a long canal that we quickly discover is an ear canal with a headphone stuffed into it, blasting Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love." The ear belongs to the teenage Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolf) whose tunes are drowning out Jewish day school. It is Danny's father Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg in pitch-perfect neurosis), however, who has a sinking feeling that his life is imploding. His wife is leaving, a student may be blackmailing him, the Columbia record club keeps calling and his brother-in-law occupies the bathroom around-the-clock. Larry begins to feel cursed, or more so, tested by God, and has no way to escape.
What gives "A Serious Man" its weird lingering is the mixture of the Coen's acidic humor with the impending sense of doom that neutralizes it. Larry is a schlep because he cannot see the signs against him and Stuhlbarg plays him as all nerves, blinding him to his predicament. Who steals the movie is actor Fred Melamed as Larry's rival, Sy Ableman, who seems to know that Larry is a cursed man and can only offer nothing but paternalistic condolence. It is the Academy Award nominated script, however, that reminds us that Joel and Ethan Coen are two of our most gifted writers, whose structured prose is ultimately the real star.