In a darkly comic contemporary parable about maintaining strength amid spirit-crushing adversity America’s preeminent tag-team writer/ directors, the inimitable Coen brothers, dump the weight of the world onto the shoulders of a mild-mannered protagonist and push him to the precipice of personal and professional breakdown to see what sparks fly out of his conscience.
The troubles that dire the straits of Larry Gopnik’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) routine-filled life as a physics-teaching matriarch of a nuclear family are many and varied: his wife wants a divorce and a brisk remarriage; his son’s a pot head and his daughter longs for a nose job; his brother is in trouble with the law; his neighbour is impeding on his land; a student is trying to bribe him for a passing grade and his promotion at work is being jeopardised by an anonymous smear campaign. Ah yes, what maketh the man is his woes.
Strong performances, tight direction and an excellent screenplay paint Gopnik’s life with detail as it confronts spectacular derailment. A Serious Man is about trying to keep your head, your morals and your faith (Gopnik is Jewish) in place as best made plans crumble into disarray. The seldom seen Stuhlbarg captures Gopnik’s period of down-n-out disaster with unshakable authenticity, bringing a claustrophobic and slowly flustering sweatiness to the character, and the rest of the cast are uniformly strong. However it’s the Coen’s finely crafted flair for nuanced storytelling that gives this captivating comedy/drama real spark and sustenance. The ending hits a beautiful combo of story resolution and open ended think-about-it audience afterlife, and a more rousing closing shot is unlikely to hit cinemas before year’s end.
A Serious Man’s Australian theatrical release date: November 19, 2009