The Coen brothers are masters of the black comedy. If you look back through their filmography, you will find many fine examples of the genre. Their latest fare does not disappoint, it delivers what we are used to from the Coens.
The film opens with a quote from a medieval Jewish Rabbi, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”, and a scene involving some early 20th Century Jews encountering what may be a dybbuk (the Jewish folklore equivalent of an undead).
Though the quote seems to fit perfectly with how our main character approaches life, the dybbuk scene was rather hard to make sense of without viewing the film as a whole. Some of the fun of this film is figuring how this part is important (if at all), without giving too much away; think of it as a blessing and a curse.
The story is quite simple and the place and time are set quickly. It’s the late ‘60s and we are introduced to everyman, Larry Gopnik, a Jewish college professor undergoing a routine physical and being told that he is healthy and everything is ok. It is only when he leaves that it is discovered how wrong his doctor is.
We are introduced quickly to the cast of characters who populate his life. He has a pot-smoking son, a daughter who steals from his wallet, a couch-crashing brother with a leaky cyst, and a wife who wants a divorce as she has fallen for a family friend and widower.
His wife’s passive-aggressive paramour insinuates himself into their life and most of the interaction he has with Larry is very uncomfortable, but leads to some of the funnier moments of the movie. Although this situation leads to laughs, mostly uncomfortable and at Larry’s expense, laughs are not solely what this film is about. It uses them to gloss over some of the more important themes of religion and mortality that are dealt with, perhaps to make some of them a little more palatable.
The film has a Wonder Years feel to it, and I hesitate to describe it that way, but that is my only frame of reference for family life in the late ‘60s. The Coens found neighborhoods that still fit that pretty picture of suburban living of the time. From the well-manicured lawns to the very boxy bungalows, the large cars to the shiny black asphalt of the driveways, you are presented with a perfect picture that is in complete juxtaposition to what actually is occurring to our main characters.
Overall, this is one of the best films I have seen this year and it is well-deserving of the multiple awards it has received. A Serious Man plays this Thursday night (February 25) at the Cape Breton Island Film Series.