LOS ANGELES - It's hard to put a finger on exactly what a Coen brothers movie is. That's part of the great allure of them.
As writers and directors, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen don't just keep pumping out the same movie over and over, as so many filmmakers do. From the comic antics of "Raising Arizona" to the noir of "The Man Who Wasn't There," the goofballs of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" to the outlaws of "No Country for Old Men," they're all strikingly different. They surprise us.
But there are some thematic threads that frequently run though them, which get tangled together in what is the Coens' most thoughtful and personal film, "A Serious Man."
Basically the point here is that the universe is random, it gives you insurmountable challenges, and there's nothing you can do about it. The concepts of justice and karma are irrelevant: Things happen to people whether their behaviour is good or bad, and you can question them all you like, but good luck finding any answers.
You could invoke "The Big Lebowski" in trying to explain this philosophy: They're nihilists. But the Coens are clearly having a little fun in making life so difficult for the nebbishy Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor raising his family in a predominately Jewish suburb of Minneapolis in 1967, a place and time inspired by the Coens' childhood.
Larry tries to do the right thing at home and at work - tries to be a serious man - but out of nowhere one day, the problems start piling up until they reach an absurd level.
His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), informs him that she's leaving him for a longtime friend of theirs, the smarmy widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). His son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), has been getting into trouble at Hebrew school as he prepares for his bar mitzvah. Daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is stealing cash from his wallet to save up for a nose job. And his unemployed brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), who's been sleeping on the couch, spends his days doodling gibberish equations in a notebook and draining the cyst in his neck.
Meanwhile, Larry is up for tenure at the university, which his boss assures him is imminent even as he drops passive-aggressive hints that there's a letter-writing campaign against him. And then there is the sizable bribe that an intense Korean student has offered him to change a failing grade.
Watching and wondering how and when he'll snap provides dark humour, yes - we're glad we're not this poor guy - but also a mounting sense of unease, and it should provoke lengthy and serious debate about the nature of faith. Everyone keeps telling Larry to see a rabbi to help solve his troubles; Larry visits several, but they only provide rambling anecdotes and cryptic bits of advice.
Visually, the mixture of flawless period detail in the production design and dreamlike cinematography from the great Roger Deakins, the Coens' frequent collaborator, heightens the feeling of surrealism as we travel with Larry through one weird day after another.
Theater veteran Stuhlbarg, a Tony Award nominee, betrays nothing in his plain, stoic visage; he trudges through no matter what, and yet he makes us long for everything to turn out all right. By comparison, Melamed is wonderfully expressive as the magnanimous homewrecker. Early on, Sy enters Larry's house, hugs him tight and assures him, "Larry we're gonna be fine."
Probably not - not in the Coens' hands. But even if it's not immediately clear what they have in mind for their characters, they'll keep you thinking about them long afterward.
"A Serious Man," a Focus Features release, is rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence. Running time: 105 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G - General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.
• For A Serious Man photos, a trailer and screen times, or to buy tickets, click here
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