By: Monika Bartyzel, reprinted from the Toronto International Film Festival 9/12/09
This is the dark comedy that Joel and Ethan Coen have been working towards. A Serious Man is the culmination of their lives, reminiscent both of their own suburban childhoods in the '60s, and of their cinematic successes over the last twenty-five years. It grabs the magic of local flavor and charm we saw in Fargo with a cast widely filled with unknown names (that pack as much of a cinematic punch as any star-studded roster you can think of), to the rapidly escalating drama of Burn After Reading. A Serious Man is cohesive and slick from stem to stern. It's serious about the craft of storytelling, both in form and function, with a dedication to characterization, pitch-perfect performances, and a cinematic backdrop that is both severely nostalgic and completely immersive.
In many ways, A Serious Man is a modern-day Candide. But rather than a hapless hero who is continually undaunted by the neverending drama that plagues him, the Coens' hero isn't a ray of sunshine. Larry Gopnik (perfectly embodied by renowned stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg) is a man utterly at a loss to explain his life's severe turn for the worse; he is a man desperate for answers. The classic Candide optimism shines down in the form of the rabbis he consults with as he tries to make sense of things. But rather than sage advice, they deliver wholly inadequate responses to life's trauma that don't speak at all to the nature of Larry's life.