Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Midwestern Professor of mathematics and his life is falling apart.
Larry's daughter is stealing from him in an attempt to pay for a nose job. His brother is developing algorithms to win at gambling, crashing on the couch and has no plans on leaving in the foreseeable future. His son is a pothead, content to listen to Jefferson Airplane and avoid the class bullies. If that weren't enough his wife is leaving him for another professor because he is a more "serious man." Larry's entire life is upended in just the first half hour of the film!
After finding money on his desk left behind by a student, Larry tries to return the money only to find out it was a bribe. With so much bad news surrounding Larry, he is finding it harder to keep his own morality from failing. His growing sexual frustrations are thrown in his face in the form of his attractive neighbor who sunbathes in the nude. For all of his troubles Larry is constantly referred to church. In seeking the wisdom of the three rabbis, Larry is turned down.
The viewer struggles to place why God has allowed this to happen to Larry and many cannot figure out why. For many, that's the point: this happens for no reason at all.
Joel and Ethan are classified as what convention would call cynics and their latest effort certainly leads credence to that. Trying to interpret God's message in all of this is futile. Now that's not to say that this is a darkly cynical film, it also features "Somebody to Love" as a running gag multiple times.
The film looks great aesthetically as well. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Reservation Road) calmly surveys the entire story as a very frenzied Larry attempts to put his life back together.
What A Serious Man lacks in typical Coen films: archetypes (Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Smith in No Country, Tex in Raising Arizona), their regular stalwarts in John Turturro, George Clooney, or John Goodman or several surprise murders; Michael Stuhlbarg makes up for in performance. The Coens were right to trust their lead role to a relative unknown. Not recognizing Stuhlbarg and coming into the film with no preconceived notions allows the audience to connect with his unbelievably bad luck.
Only the Coens could possibly pull off making a film this dark this funny.
***1/2 out of ****