“A Serious Man,” the Coen brothers’ most explicitly autobiographical movie to date, may well come to be seen as the filmmakers’ urtext – a distillation of the themes, preoccupations and, finally, flaws that have animated the best and worst films of their quarter-century career.
Joel and Ethan Coen return to the Minneapolis suburb of their childhood as physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) discovers that his comfortable life is quickly dissolving around him.
His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), wants a divorce so she can marry her lover. Larry’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who has been sleeping on the Gopniks’ couch, shows no signs of leaving the house. The Gopnik children, Danny and Sarah, fight continually.
And Larry entertains ethical dilemmas that define daily life, from whether to wait for his brother before starting dinner to dealing with a disgruntled student who wants to bribe him for a better grade.
As the title character of “A Serious Man,” Larry approaches every question, large or small, with equal amounts of gravitas. But even a rational man needs a little help, and Larry seeks the counsel of three rabbis.
As a darkly funny, affectionate homage to their Jewish roots, “A Serious Man” feels like the most disarmingly personal film in an oeuvre characterized by a chilly, ironic distance that too often has shaded into outright condescension.
But even with a few weaknesses on one side of the ledger, “A Serious Man” counts as one of the Coens’ best, deserving a place alongside “Fargo” (still their masterpiece) in its lack of the snark and pretentiousness to which the filmmakers can be prone.
Mostly, “A Serious Man” succeeds because it engages questions worth asking: What is integrity? Does our human need for stories and traditions illuminate the meaning of life or obfuscate it? What does it mean to be good, and how are we to achieve it?
If “A Serious Man’s” wildly indeterminate climax is sure to keep Coen scholars busy for centuries, the film’s erratic, self-consciously absurdist humor will strike their detractors as yet another example of their tendency to fall back on inside jokes.
Perhaps more than any of their movies, “A Serious Man” perfectly evinces the filmmakers’ enduring, confounding ethic: As much as the Coen brothers giveth, they also taketh away.