While opening credits snap to the drumbeat of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love," we zoom through an ear cavity of a kid listening to a transistor radio during Hebrew school. And you might guess that this is going to be another bizarre ride on the Coen Bros Express. But it's not as weird as it is simplistic, a meticulous tale that's taken to every inch of its breaking point.
The setting is 1967 Minnesota where university physics professor Larry Gopnik's (Michael Stuhlbarg) life is coming apart at the seams. His wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him, his jobless brother (Richard Kind) has moved in, a student is threatening to sue him over a poor grade, Columbia Record Club peppers him with past due calls, someone is trying to sabotage his chances for tenure and his son's bar mitzvah is approaching. Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis and a personal lawyer but whether anyone can help him overcome his many hardships remains to be seen. Throughout this comedy of errors, we can do nothing but await the impending explosion of Gopnick's head.
The Coens' dire, twisted yet palpable humor has never been sharper. The painstakingly minute detail of each shot burns into your brain. The perfectly weird décor of the 1960s tract homes is flawless and the comic timing is impeccable. The dialogue remains a smart and hilarious balancing act amid never-ending catastrophes. The slow-burn comic bantering is genius; the dialogue bulges with double entendres and innuendo. It's all there in the wackier-than-thou Coen bros doctrine. With F-Troop as sitcom fodder and the Surrealistic Pillow album to depict this generation, hopefully the generation gap doesn't alienate too many from the younger set.
The brilliantly subdued performance of Stuhlbarg (Tony award winner/virtually unknown to the big screen) is nothing less than perfect. Among the supporting cast standouts are Amy Landecker as the pot smoking nude sun bathing neighbor, Fred Melamed as the smarmy "other man" and Kind as the hooker-obsessed, addicted gambler/mathematical genius that drains his own cyst with a mad scientist's flair.
As the Coen's most intensely Jewish and autobiographical film (echoing the Coens' own background), Serious Man oddly turns out to be one of the team's most pertinent and accessible. The film spins a moral telling the audience to do good for others as well as themselves in the face of all things perilous and wrong.
Clearly coming from a deeply personal place, Serious Man is dark, disturbing and hilarious; a pitch-perfect comedy exploring questions of faith, familial responsibility, delinquent behavior, dental phenomena, mathematics, academia, gambling, infidelity, mortality, Judaism and the powers of nightmares. Never missing a beat, the formidable filmmaking skills the Coens have honed in through more than 25 years of collaboration exhibits itself in every frame.
A Serious Man ★★★★1/2
Written & Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Amy Landecker, Adam Arkin. Rated R