A Serious Man - TIFF 2009 Day 4

dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

I don't recall the Coen Brothers ever getting overtly religious in their movies. But they dive in head first in their new film, A Serious Man, and they do so with great results as they deal with a theme they know well - the frustrated, put-upon man. As recently as John Malcovich's "what the fuck" mantra in Burn After Reading and as long ago as Barton Fink, the Coens have always struck gold when it comes to depicting the slow burn. I've long put Barton Fink at the top of my Coen's list and there is a kindred feel to A Serious Man. I think you could take that image used to great effect in the trailer, of our protagonist getting his head repeatedly smashed up against a wall, as a feeling not too dissimilar to that Fink feeling. A Simple Man is more or less about what happens when a man tries to find solace in religion when he's up to his neck in family and professional troubles.

Our man in crisis is Larry Gopnik, whose confusion and bewilderment is wonderfully realized by the relatively unknown talents of Michael Stuhlbarg. Larry's wife is leaving him, or trying to anyway, his son is about to have his bar mitzvah in a few days (as well as being in dutch with the pot dealing kid down the street), his goy-to-the-extreme neighbors are encroaching on his property, one of his students is trying to bribe a passing grade, and mysterious letters are being mailed to the tenure committee that are raising questions about Larry's professionalism. All this and more has Larry looking to his religion for help. There are three local rabbi and each one gets a title card - The First Rabbi is a young man who's only insight into life is how to look at the parking lot outside his window and still be able to see God. The Second Rabbi visit produces one of those amazing Coen Brothers sequences -- a little short story within a film set perfectly to music (in this case Hendrix's "Machine Gun") that doesn't really provide any forward plot development but provides gives their world of 1960's Minnesota so much color and flavor it's downright joyous to behold.

The whole film is so damn funny, intricately crafted in that amazing Coens way and practically flawless from front to end, that it quickly rose to challenge the Barton Fink top spot for me. There isn't a dull moment here and while it doesn't end up grabbing that top spot from Fink, it is the most instantly enjoyable and entertaining Coens film is a while. It doesn't have quite the profundity of some of their best but for unrelenting laughs tinged with pathos - A Serious Man is definitely a contender.