After the needlessly nihilistic buffoonery of Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers’ latest opus, A Serious Man, arrives with hellfire and gargantuan confidence. Like the majority of their filmography, it finds the writer-directors plumbing the endless well of existentialist angst; and yet, they manage to draw forth new truths once again. The story is one thing: Larry Gopnik (Michael Stulhbarg, a previously unknown, Twilight Zone Michael Showalter) is a professor of little note whose suburban ’60s life and family begins to crumble around him, piece by piece, on the eve of his son’s Bar Mitzvah. But the movie’s delights are not the who and what, but the how.
A Serious Man is a masterclass on building narrative tension, as Larry’s anxiety and impotence threaten to harden into something dangerous. Not a scene is wasted, no sentence extraneous. Even the Coens’ past tricks — The Big Lebowski‘s surreal dream sequences, the midnight sexuality of ’60s psych-rock — find new life here, as Larry dabbles in pot and wakes from nightmare after feverish nightmare. It’s a deeply Jewish film, spending much of its time in temple or dealing with rabbis (who, in the name of dark comedy, don’t get much of a fair shake) and wondering if even 5,000 years of beautiful tradition can answer life’s big questions. In the end, shrill, stuttering Larry makes a choice of his own — and it’s not to roll on Shabbos. The ensuing reaction brings the film’s message, a follow-up in its way to the close of No Country For Old Men. As you can imagine, it’s serious business. But you’d expect nothing less from one of the best films of the year — and of the Coens’ storied career. (And an Oscar nominee for Best Picture this week! Shame about Star Trek.)
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