Coens’ latest is Serious-ly Funny


The Coen brothers’ new film, A Serious Man, is seriously funny — but it’s the darkest of comedy. A throwback to earlier works like Fargo and Barton Fink, it also has a bit more laugh aloud humor in the style of The Big Lebowski.

Set in Minneapolis in 1967, A Serious Man draws on the childhoods of writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen growing up in a Midwestern Jewish community.


At the center of the film is Larry Gopnik (Tony-nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a local college. Larry is an ordinary man — a good guy trying to do all the right things but blissfully drifting through life. That is, until everything seems to fall apart, starting when his wife Judith (Minneapolis-based actress Sari Lennick) announces she wants a divorce. She plans to marry a widower friend of theirs, the supremely confident, even smug Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), whom she considers a more “serious man” than the passive Larry.

Larry is certainly a more successful man than his older brother Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind). Arthur sleeps on the Gopnik couch and tends to a cyst on his neck that requires repeated suctioning and hours in the bathroom, much to the chagrin of the Gopniks’ appearance-obsessed teenaged daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus). Their son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is supposed to be preparing for his upcoming bar mitzvah but seems more focused on listening to Jefferson Airplane on the radio, smoking pot in the restroom at Hebrew school and watching F Troop on TV. Although Larry is upset by the events unfolding, he tries to do what is asked of him, just as everyone around him expects, no matter how absurd things get.

And things keep piling on. He is up for tenure when a Korean student tries to bribe him. His wife asks him to move out and he does, taking Uncle Arthur with him. And then there is his beautiful new neighbor who insists on sunbathing in the nude.

As life continues to slide downhill, Larry becomes increasingly obsessed with finding the meaning behind all these awful turns. Is God trying to tell him something?

Yet the worse things get for poor, beleaguered Larry, the funnier the movie becomes. As he navigates this razor’s edge, he starts to have strange dreams, comic gems the clever Coens lob at us. The comedy is like a huge, awful joke with an enormous punch line at the end.

The Coens’ script is a tour-de-force, aided by outstanding acting from the gifted Stuhlbarg, who has to walk a fine line to make Larry a likeable, sympathetic character instead of simply a luckless victim. Fred Melamed offers a smooth, even sexy, Sy Ableman, offering to counsel befuddled Larry even as he steals his wife. Other performances from the lesser-known cast are sparkling as well.

As always, Roger Deakins’ vivid, dream-like photography is stunning, functioning like another character in the story, deepening every scene and imbuing each with a palpable sense of meaning or foreboding.

The Coen brothers have crafted a brilliant film in A Serious Man, a masterpiece of black, absurd comedy. It is among their funniest and best works, and is likely to be a heavy contender of Oscar nominations this season.