The Shaggy Dog Storytellers
A Serious Man (2009)
Four years before the collective cuteness of Oscar Isaac and a wayward cat convinced otherwise normal audiences to follow the laissez faire adventure of Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers took a similarly meandering journey through the battered psyche of a meek physics professor in A Serious Man.
If the average Coen film is not everyone’s cup of tea, then A Serious Man is cinematic kombucha. Described not uncharitably as “the kind of picture you get to make after you’ve won an Oscar” by Variety critic Todd McCarthy, it finds the Coens at both their least outwardly sensible and least compromising. It begins with a Jewish couple in eastern Europe who may or may not be visited by a dybbuk, a prologue that the Coens – who previously displayed their love of whimsical misdirection with the introduction to the re-release of Blood Simple and the claim that Fargo was based on true events in its opening title sequence – claim has no thematic connection to the rest of the film. From there, it shifts its cynical and dark humor onto Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a beleaguered professor who is chasing tenure, fighting off bribery, facing divorce, and seeking the advice of Jefferson Airplane-quoting sages in 1960s Minnesota.
The plot has less direction than an early ‘90s LA burnout. Not even its most ardent defenders seem to agree what it’s actually about, although some are really invested in the idea that it’s a modern-day Book of Job. It’s funny, although the strangeness or ha-ha-ness of said funniness is entirely in the eye of the beholder. And it’s often more brutal than Coen films with 20 times the body count.
In other words, it’s basically real life with a touch of Coen humor thrown into the mix and just as polarizing as both of those things.