"A Serious Man" is unique, and thus, admirable, but is it a success at what it sets out to do? Always ones to defy expectations when it comes to the disparity of each new project, writer-directors Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (2008's "Burn After Reading
") have regrettably missed the mark this time, though not for a lack of trying. Like the overly suspect lead protagonist, Midwestern college physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), the viewer senses that things are headed in a bleak direction. Dread, accompanied by a complimentary music score by Carter Burwell (2008's "In Bruges
"), hangs in the air like an emerging stench. That is all well and good, but the Coens make the misguided decision of treating the story and all of the characters' misadventures like some sort of jokey farce. The process of watching it is uncomfortable at times, but too pretentious and knowingly out-there to thoroughly amuse, not helped by an ensemble whose lack of development leaves one detached from caring about what happens to them. With a coincidence-heavy, cruelly ironic ending like the one this film has, that oversight of humanity seems all the more like a grievous missed opportunity.
Minnesota, 1967. By day, Jewish patriarch Larry Gopnik teaches at a nearby university while sticking strictly to his moral guns when it comes to failing students trying to get a free pass in his class. By night, he gets lost in the chaos of a suburban homelife he has no idea is depleting before his eyes. When wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces that she wants a divorce and has fallen for family acquaintance Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), Larry is doubled over and devastated by the news. Stuck in a sort of limbo that finds him sleeping on a cot in the living room half the time and staying at a nearby motel with high-maintenance Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind) the rest, Larry bides his time believing that the world is out to get him. Not only is he oppressed from his wife and childrenteenage daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) spends her time in front of the mirror, while Bar Mitzvah-bound son Danny (Aaron Wolff) distracts himself at Hebrew school by listening to Jefferson Airplane and getting high in the bathroombut he also must contend with a student who is blackmailing him and a neighbor who threatens his livelihood merely by mowing an inch or two of his property's lawn. Suffice it to say, Larry has too much on his mind to enjoy the very real possibility that he is about to get tenure in his profession.
"A Serious Man" features a striking opening that stands apart from the plot proper, as a centuries-ago Shtetl couple (Allen Lewis Rickman and Yelena Shmulenson) are faced with a visit from a man (Fyvush Finkel) who supposedly died three years earlier and may be a Dybbuk. The wife is so quick to label and cast stones at the man that she makes a rash decision with potentially harrowing consequences. By contrast, sad sack Larry Gopnik misjudges the very life he's been leading, so paranoid that the rest of the world is out to get him that he doesn't take the time to enjoy himself or appreciate the things and people he does have. It is a valid, thought-provoking tale of morality, but it is a shame that the screenplay, like Larry, does not pay enough attention to those around him for anyone to rise above two dimensions. Characters, from a sultry neighbor (Amy Landecker) to a female friend he confides in at a picnic (Katherine Borowitz) to his coworkers to the stream of Rabbis he turns to, drift in and out, sometimes so hastily that they disappear completely before they have been properly established. His more important relationships, like the ones he shares with his wife and kids, are almost as poorly defined, not nearly enough time spent with them for their roles to grow beyond abstracts.
The cast, primarily made up of character actors the average person has never heard of, are strong, making the most of an uneven script by believably filling out each of their half-formed parts. The sole figure who does get the material worthy of sinking one's teeth into it is Michael Stuhlbarg (2008's "Body of Lies
"), arresting as Larry Gopnik. Larry has more than he bothers to acknowledge, but his concentration on the little things keeps him from savoring the bigger picture. Stuhlbarg does not overly emotionalize the role, nor does he need to; he's expressive enough in his face and mannerisms to personalize Larry's journey.
Alas, despite Michael Stuhlbarg's efforts, "A Serious Man" gets bogged down in surrealistic touches and narrative gimmicksseveral parts in succession turn out to be dreamsthat take away from the cautionary story being told. Wavering between disjointed and jaunty, not properly intimating the human element or taking heed of its title, the film fails to be as serious as it should. The final scenes, sinking into pure darkness, are effective, but would have packed a far greater wallop if the punishing hands of fate were wrapping around characters we had already grown to know and root for. Instead, they stand at a distance, and "A Serious Man" becomes but a faint promising shadow of the potential masterwork it should have been.