Coens Get Personal in 1960s Time Capsule

A Serious Man
Starring Michael Stuhlberg, Sari Lennick & Richard Kind
Directed Joel & Ethan Coen
Rated R
01:05
3 stars

The Coen brothers made their mark on Hollywood by pushing motony’s stylistic limit — exploring morose themes with even darker humor. Despite a shoddy screenplay, “A Serious Man” is no exception, though this 1960s period piece feels more like an introspective time capsule peering into the directors’ own Jewish childhoods than a product of their outrageous imaginations.

It’s 1967, and Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) is trapped in a Minnesota suburban dystopia — not unlike the Coens, pre-Oscars. Gopnick’s wife (Sari Lennick) wants to divorce him for the pompous Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed); his promotion at the university is being hampered by an anonymous letter writer; his worst student is trying to bribe his way to a passing grade; his son is getting high at Hebrew school; his blue-collar neighbor doesn’t understand property lines; and, worst of all, the rabbi won’t so much as see him.

Like sinister puppeteers, the Coens weave slow pacing with deadpan humor to evoke the eerie suffocation of suburban perfection, as Larry — the embodiment of male mediocrity — struggles to understand why bad things happen to good people.

It is within these moments of utter disillusionment, as all Larry’s well-intentioned yet distinctively clueless acquaintances offer him pointless anecdotes and monotone advice, that the comedic gold of the film shines through.

After all, when life goes up in flames, what is there left to do but laugh?

While stony dialogue is forced at times, the majority of the cast manages to be believable in spite of their boxy screenplay. Only in Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolff) do we see a departure from the film’s self-conscious, period-piece feel, when the young man shows up to his own bar mitzvah so thoroughly blazed that he barely manages to sound out the Torah.

Though it was probably the Coens’ intention, Larry’s suburban universe feels staged to the point of overkill, much like the popular advertisements of the decade that invade every scene — minus shiny happiness. In their efforts to break down the decade into meticulous detail, the directors leave the audience wondering, along with our unlikely hero, whether any of it was real — or worth it.

Maybe it’s the generation gap, but too many punch lines and pop-culture references get lost in translation, undoubtedly flying over the heads of anyone not approaching senior citizenship. But if you can sit through back-to-back slow pans of listless ‘60s suburbia, the Coens’ characteristic disregard for a traditional Hollywood ending is worth the wait.

Donate to The UCSD Guardian
$2505
$5000
Contributed
Our Goal

Your donation will support the student journalists at University of California, San Diego. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, keep printing our papers, and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
Donate to The UCSD Guardian
$2505
$5000
Contributed
Our Goal