A Serious Man

(Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009) Reviewers who pegged Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) as an everyman revealed a blindspot. Gopnik’s identity and worldview as a physicist — hardly a workaday calling, and one that requires ambition to achieve — are not commonplace. They’re integral to the Coen Brothers’ exploration of a man’s world thrown suddenly off its axis by parts no longer functioning per cultural laws of 1960s America. Gopnik straddles an elite tier but it does him no good — he’s bulldozed over by wife, friend, offspring, neighbor, student and a handful of rabbis, who make further riddles of the enigmas Gopnik is desperate to crack. The scientist in him is thrown — his privileged center can’t hold. Everything is foreshadowed in the film’s arcane opening scene, in which a married pair are unsure if the visitor before them is a golem; uncertainty à la Heisenberg Principle lies at the heart of the Coens’ narrative, from its prologue to its cliffhanger final shot. If Gopnik’s character also works as a typical mensch, it’s due to a layered screenplay and the depth of Stuhlbarg’s performance, one of the best among the year’s studio productions. A Serious Man is one of the Coens’ most contemplative films, made with an economy that belies its intricacy. It’s a film of overlapping casings of meaning, designed to reveal a new dimension with each repeat viewing. — Ranylt Richildis

(Originally published as part of In Review Online’s The 100 Best Films of the Decade feature, in February 2010.)

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