A Serious Man follows the journey of Larry Gopnik – a middle-aged physics professor of the Jewish faith. On the surface, the film appears to be about an ordinary man from a suburban neighbourhood without any serious concerns. Someone, who lives by the rules in the scriptures, and tries to be on the path of virtue and righteousness. Larry has always been that. However, troubles start following him all of a sudden – in every way imaginable.
This Coen brothers directorial falls into the genre of black comedy that often presents a bleak, gloomy subject matter. While the comedy genre is generally perceived to be amusing, a black comedy isn’t inherently hilarious nor is sure-fire laughter its primary aim. Think of Scorsese’s cult classics like King of Comedy or After Hours. Be it a comedian trying to make it big in the industry or just a simpleton trying to run away from the trap of the continuing unusual circumstances – the humour we find is in tragic notes of their journey. European black comedies like Sightseers and In Bruges delve beautifully into the psyche of their characters to explore their hurt and agony. While such works might use an occasional element of slapstick humour or word-play, the humour isn’t primarily dependent on such tricks.
Getting back to our film, A Serious Man occurs on the wide and empty streets of suburban America. Larry Gopnik inhabits a small place in this vicinity while working as a college professor and leading a fairly mundane routine. There is no spark of thrill or excitement. Yet, it doesn’t necessarily bother Larry as an individual. After all, he is living a life on a path handed down from the ancestors of his faith, and he is devoted to his vocation. But under this hubristic certainty, many underlying conflicts start to unravel piece by piece.
A predicament with one of the students over a failing grade, a sudden plea for divorce from his wife, a baffling set of crimes that his brother commits – every bit of worry adds to Larry’s anxiety. As an ardent follower of physics and theoretical practices, he passionately pursues the reasons behind his misery through every form of interpretation. However, his existing knowledge does him a disservice, and his curiosity keeps him in a constant state of puzzlement.
Michael Stuhlbarg portrays the character with the required innocence and naïve optimism. Within the first few scenes, you can find that in his wide-eyed expressions and his cheerful smile. Through a gawky, shrunken posture, the actor instantly gives away the impression of Larry’s constrained personality. Besides the acting performances, the editing and cinematographic choices are marvellously apt.
Take the scene where Larry’s son is called into the office by his professor, for listening to music during his class. This old religious man carefully examines kid’s earphones before finally putting them on. Then the assistant enters holding a cup of some drink in an unhurried pace that you characteristically feel the passage of time in this wide, old-timey space. Even the scene where Larry enters his house only to be bombarded with one surprising reveal after the other. He just stands on the doorstep aimlessly staring while being infinitely self-absorbed – thinking how all of it affects him, personally. These intentional editorial choices deliver a chuckle or two. Even Larry’s eyes peeping through his heavy glasses are a nice comical touch.
But beyond such genius enactment, what genuinely makes the film funny is how it makes us laugh where Larry is the most miserable – almost as if we enjoy his bewilderment. As the audience, we are given enough substance to figure out Larry’s self-absorbed, overly confident nature and his bemused state. The humour we find is in those moments where he keeps sinking deeper in his misery – where he is utterly helpless due to his disbelief at his fate. What has he done to deserve such misfortune? He keeps asking himself. He cannot accept a situation to be a ‘mere surmise’. With his belief in causality, he cannot fathom the circumstances he has fallen into – despite making all the virtuous choices. “Actions have consequences”, he preaches with certainty right after speaking about the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment in his lecture. His life (and the whole film) is filled with such hilarious contradictions.
Through the stimulating discourse, the Coen brothers also drop tiny clues for us to navigate through and introspect our own selves. On the lines of self-deprecation or self-realization, we witness these scenes to question our individual beliefs. That is what makes A Serious Man to be an overlooked film in the director’s filmography, do watch it if you get the chance.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.