Towards the end of the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, a black-clad German complains that a situation isn’t fair. ‘Fair?’ splutters Walter Sobchak (John Goodman). ‘Who’s the f**king nihilist around here?!’ Life isn’t fair for the lead of the Coens’ latest, A Serious Man, either. Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg), a mild-mannered mathematics professor in 1967 suburban Jewish Minnesota, is struggling with a crumbling marriage, alienated kids, a burdensome brother, malicious professional rumours, a siren neighbour and incessant calls from a mail-order record company. Unlike the nihilists, however, Larry has faith: he is a conscientious Jew and tries to be a serious man. So, to quote a Jefferson Airplane song from the film’s soundtrack, when the truth is found to be lies and all the hope within you dies… Then what?
Glanced at in many of the Coens’ earlier films, Jewishness is front and centre here, from the shtetl-set, Yiddish-speaking prologue to the hermetically Jewish community in which Larry lives. Drawing on the actual milieu of their own adolescence, the filmmakers – past masters of outré production design and sardonic genre subversion – play things relatively straight to tell a story that, for all its plentiful absurdities, is sincerely engaged with the challenge of unjust suffering. Bewildered, desperate, nose twitching in perplexity, Stuhlbarg’s Larry has been compared to Job; understandably, given his host of burdens and the setting’s Old Testament overtones. Yet Larry is perhaps closer to Kafka’s Josef K, another put-upon character who suffers an unwarranted ordeal without quite being heroic.
The Coens nod at familiar stylistic tropes – florid swearing, sexual euphemism, crusty, aged characters – but the film’s potency is rooted in quiet precision and detailed realisation. Roger Deakins’ typically polished photography gives an oppressively hard edge to Midwestern suburbia while the sound design is a wondrous mélange of soup-slurping, hacking coughs, gastric juices and ominous clanging. Stuhlbarg, a Tony-winning stage actor, leads a largely unknown but impeccable cast that also includes Sari Lennick as Larry’s no-nonsense wife, Fred Melamed as her smug, unctuous lover and Richard Kind as Larry’s sad-sack brother, forever draining a cyst on his neck.
Established religion offers Larry little consolation, but the idea of faith – or at least good living – that emerges from his struggle matches the sensibility the Coens have unobtrusively espoused throughout their work: reject worldly status, bear trials with humility, find joy in fellow-feeling. Bad things happen to good people. To acknowledge – even, as storytellers, to embrace – this fact is not to indulge in nihilism, but to make more urgent the social task that might mitigate its effects. You’d better find somebody to love. Ben Walters
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