The Coen Brothers return to the Midwest of their childhoods for A Serious Man, a mordant comedy set in an almost exclusively Jewish milieu in 1967 suburban Minnesota. They’re on home terrain, yet they observe their characters with their customary cool detachment – like someone holding up a bug in a jar for curious inspection.
The unfortunate specimen in A Serious Man is middle-aged Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who goes through a series of Job-like trials after his wife announces that she is leaving him for another man. As more and more misfortunes befall him, Larry seeks guidance from a series of rabbis in an effort to make sense of his woes but only meets frustration at every turn.
The Coens unfold this tragic-comic tale with consummate skill. The acting is stylised, but just the right side of caricature, the photography masterly and the period details carefully observed – from clothes (men’s trousers hitched up high) to music (Larry’s pot-smoking son, supposedly preparing for his bar mitzvah, wigs out to Jefferson Airplane’s epochal Surrealistic Pillow).
For all the droll wit on display, though, it’s hard to warm to the Coens’ chilly parable. Is Larry’s suffering the work of God or the Devil, or just the random chaos of an indifferent universe? Arch-ironists to their fingertips, the Coens aren’t telling.
Out on DVD & Blu-ray.