A Serious Man finds the Coen brothers back on their home ground in more ways than one.
For a start it’s set – and shot – in the bland mid-west burg of Minneapolis from where they hail. It’s the kind of pitch-black, schadenfreude comedy that they do better than almost anyone. And, once again, it’s their personal take on a classic piece of literature.
They’ve tackled Raymond Chandler (The Big Lebowski), Dashiell Hammett (Miller’s Crossing) and even Homer (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). This time round, it’s the Book of Job.
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, whose face is a permanent wail of “Oy vey!”) is a good man, indeed a serious man – a loving husband and father, a conscientious university teacher, a pillar of his local Jewish community. Yet God, or the universe, or something, is shovelling shit on his head, barrel-loads at a time.
His wife wants a divorce to shack up with a man much older than him. His daughter’s stealing money from him for a nose-job. His son, who’s supposed to be studying for his bar-mitzvah, is overdosing on rock music and smoking pot. His wastrel brother is sleeping on the couch, hogging the bathroom and getting in bad with the cops.
His redneck neighbour is encroaching on his lawn, his department head is hinting at scurrilous rumours about him and one of his students is trying to blackmail him. And the Columbia Record Company is hounding him for payment for discs he never received.
In typical enigmatic fashion, the Coens kick off with a prologue set in a 19th-Century Eastern European shtetl and spoken entirely in Yiddish, where a couple face off against a supposed dybbuk (the walking dead – check out the disc’s ‘Hebrew And Yiddish For Goys’ featurette).
In the Making Of, the brothers suggest this is the equivalent of the cartoon that used to precede the main feature. But what it also does, of course, is let us know that what we’re about to see is one long, elaborate Jewish joke.
In some quarters there have been mutterings about anti-Semitism. But the Coens, as anyone familiar with their films well knows, will take the piss out of anybody – so why not the Jews? Besides, the film’s two most unpleasant characters (the aggressive redneck neighbour and the bribing student’s Korean dad) are both goys.
The film recreates 1967 suburban Minneapolis in affectionately mocking detail. The casting, right down to the smallest roles, is impeccable – just look at the body language of the senior rabbi’s secretary – and it helps that the Coens have gone for unfamiliar actors, so we’re not distracted by star faces.
And the dialogue, as you’d expect, is sharp, witty, unpredictable – and gloriously funny. Welcome home, boys…
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