The Coen brothers have done it again with this semi-autobiographical voyage that takes place in 1967 in suburban Minneapolis. A Serious Man is a film that can be summed up in one Yiddish proverb: “Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht.” It means: Man plans, God laughs.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg in an incredible performance), a Jewish professor of physics, seems to think that his life is coming along quite nicely. He is up for tenure, has a wife, two children, and a nice home. Things couldn’t be looking better. Then comes the tornado. The tenure committee isn’t so sure about Larry now that someone has been sending discerning letters about him. His son is beginning to smoke marijuana habitually while also preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and to makes things even worse, his wife has asked for a divorce while revealing that she is leaving him for his close friend. Talk about having a bad week.
Clearly, Larry feels lost. How did his life spin out of control so quickly? As a man who studies a science of what is and isn’t, what is he supposed to do now? A friend of his suggests that he seek advice from his rabbi.
In a tongue and cheek form of allegory, Larry goes to visit not one, but three rabbis. The first is a very young rabbi who tries to get Larry to have a fresh perspective on life by looking outside at the parking lot. The second Rabbi recounts a tale of a dentist who sees Hebrew engraved in the back of one of his patient’s teeth. When Larry searches for meaning in the story, he is left frustrated and without any answers to his problems. (It is an extremely hilarious scene.) Finally, he attempts to meet Rabbi Marshak, who spends all of his time “thinking.” Unfortunately, he is never granted an audience with the Rabbi and is left to dwell on his persistent troubles.
Things continue to dart back and forth for Larry. For every moment he thinks things are turning around, something happens that causes him to feel immense suffering.
Joel and Ethan Coen are not novices when it comes to the art of the black comedy. But what makes A Serious Man different from their other films is that this one seems to be the most personal. They seem to be tackling not only the era and area they grew up in, but also the faith they have been so connected to, or is it disconnected from? (I’m not so sure which one it is).
I loved the build up of Larry’s misery for both its hilarity and ultimate payoff. Only the Coen brothers can take a man’s pain and make you laugh and reflect at the same time. Even with all of Larry’s rational questions and explanations for why this is happening and what he should do, he becomes more and more lost in the whirlwind that his life has become. For as the saying goes: man plans, god laughs.