There's no easy way to describe A SERIOUS MAN, the Coen Brothers' latest masterwork. On one hand, it's vintage Coens, loaded with irreverance, zaniness, memorable supporting characters and a protagonist who stumbles into drama in spite of himself. But at the same time, it is shrouded in a darkness so intensely brutal that by the time it's over, you feel as though you've been repeatedly bludgeoned with a sledgehammer. It's hilarious but eminently disturbing -- indeed, most of the humor results from awkwardness, discomfort and sheer disbelief at what is transpiring. It's not exactly schadenfraude because you'll take no real pleasure in the misery that unfurls -- but you can't help but laugh... perhaps to keep from curling up into the fetal position and crying yourself to sleep.
It's the story of a Jewish family living in Minneapolis in 1967, loosely based on the Coens' own experiences. Larry Gopnik tries hard to be a good husband, father, brother, neighbor, physics professor and Jew, but no matter what he does, he can't seem to catch a break. After his horrible wife informs him that she's leaving him for a family friend, Larry stumbles into a series of escalating hardships. These hardships include, but are not limited to: Extortion by a Korean student... endlessly bickering kids... a leeching-but-well-meaning brother who spends most of his time in the bathroom draining a boil on his neck... a property dispute with a white-trash neighbor... lustful thoughts for the nude sunbathing housewife next door... maddeningly unhelpful rabbis... an ominous tenure hearing... non-stop Jewish guilt... it never ends. Some of these things are more serious and cause more stress than others, but everything that happens adds a little more fuel to the slow-building fire. Watching this movie is like watching a catastrophic multi-car pileup from above -- you see the first two cars collide, and then a couple more, and a couple more, and just when you think that the carnage has gotten as bad as it can possibly get... a tractor trailer comes along and brings with it a whole new level of chaos.
The performances are pretty much outstanding across the board. The cast is loaded with no-name talent, with a few character actors sprinkled in (kudos to my girlfriend, Rachel, for recognizing BOSTON PUBLIC's Fyvush Finkel as the Dybbuk in the prologue!). Michael Stuhlbarg is Oscar-worthy as Larry -- watching him try to keep it together as he endures debacle after debacle is as brutal as any horror movie I've ever seen. There are a few twists that are literally jaw-dropping and Stuhlbarg plays it all beautifully. Meanwhile, Fred Melamed makes the aforementioned family friend, the despicable, pretentious, manipulative Sy Ableman, one of the most reviled characters I've seen in a movie all year. Tremendous.
Oh, and the ending? All I can say is.................. wow.
It's funny that I should choose this movie for my first blog entry in almost two months (sorry about that, by the way... goddamn I'm lazy), because it really defies reviewing. Nothing I've written here, nor any other review I've read, can do it justice -- it has to be seen to be believed, and then discussed and mulled over for hours afterwards. Time will tell if it has the same longevity as other Coen Bros. classics -- but based on the fact that I am still reeling nearly 24 hours later, it's clearly the kind of film that sticks with you and stews in your brain long after the credits roll. I hereby anoint A SERIOUS MAN one of the Coens' best -- and, so far, one of the few absolute must-see movies of 2009. Seriously!