Joel and Ethan Coen’s films have always had a distinctive style.
Whether cartoonish (“Raising Arizona”), sultry (“Blood Simple”), comical (“The Big Lebowski”) musical (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?) or violent (their Oscar-winning “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men”), the writing/editing/producing/directing brothers create movies with universes all their own. Yet, somehow, they all have a common tonality.
So the brothers’ latest comedy/drama, “A Serious Man,” is unmistakably theirs. It feels every bit like a Coen brothers film, and that’s both good and bad.
This one is destined to be labeled their “Jewish movie.” And though it’s laced with subtle dark humor, the story is cryptic, the pacing almost numbing, the settings claustrophobic, and the end result uneven.
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Still, fans of their filmmaking will find lots to like, even if others get bored.
Set in 1967, we follow Larry Gopnik (Broadway veteran Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a quiet Minnesota university, who has just been told that his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of their friends, the pompous widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamud).
So sets up a chain of events that shreds Larry’s life, which is further complicated by his inept, unemployed brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), who sleeps on the couch and spends hours in the bathroom.
Larry’s pothead son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), is a lazy screw-up and gets caught listening to Jefferson Airplane at Hebrew School. His impending bar mitzvah is both anticipated with fear that he’ll botch the whole thing and hope that he may finally grow up a little.
Larry’s daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), is stealing money from his wallet, saving up for a nose job.
And Larry’s chance for tenure at the university is in jeopardy, sparked by an anonymous person writing letters to the selection committee.
Larry finally tries to seek friendship and solace from his neighbor, but even that is tainted, as he spies while she sunbathes in the nude.
As Larry spirals downward with every blow that comes his way, we wince with him. Somehow, he keeps stumbling through, not because of integrity or tenacity, but because he just doesn’t have enough sense to stay down.
Credit Stuhlbarg’s not-too-showy performance as Larry for making us care about him. He creates a likable putz who grasps helplessly at the seams of his unraveling world.
But the rest of the characters aren’t dynamic, and they become symbolic rather than actual people in the Coens’ attempt to analyze religion, faith, destiny and responsibility.
It’s certainly a surreal, dreamy journey — but it becomes numbing. The film feels much like the Coens’ “Barton Fink,” with long pauses in quiet rooms and the camera moving down hallways that seem to go on forever yet close in at the same time.
Everything — including the story and its inhabitants — becomes stylized.
“A Serious Man” certainly isn’t false advertising. It never seems to find its way, and gets lost in its own existential haze.