A Serious Man

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Directors Ethan and Joel Coen; Release date: out now

In their second outing since the huge hit No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers are back with a film that may perhaps alienate some of their new-found audience but which is undoubtedly a great return to form.

The dramatic terrain is a suburban black comedy of ungrateful family and financial distress. Set in the Midwest in 1967, the film begins on the day that maths professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) discovers unexpectedly that his wife is leaving him for one of the neighbours. This is the catalyst for a series of intolerable burdens on Larry's permanently hunched shoulders, including an older brother who refuses to move out even when Larry takes up residence in a motel, and an application for tenure at work that is put into crisis by a series of poison pen letters and the lingering temptation of a foreign student's attempts at bribery.

This is apparently the Coens' most autobiographical film to date, with the rest of the film unfolding and ridiculing their childhood milieu of Jewish suburbanites. I say the film begins the day his wife leaves, although that is not strictly true. The film begins with a prologue of ancient Jewish mysticism that sets the tone for the danger wives can pose to men's health.

The film is certainly misogynist, although just as it feels like it is also going to offer little more than racial stereotypes (are Hollywood Jews really always going to be geeks and grotesques?) it starts to take off. One wonderful early moment has Larry fixing the aerial so his spoilt children can continue to spend their lives in front of the TV. The fuzzy reception as the frequency tunes in and out becomes the perfect metaphor for Larry's confusion as we are placed in the mind of an earnest man in a ridiculous situation.

Do not expect any answers from a Coen brothers film, but the increasing absurdity that meets Larry's search for some meaning to justify his travails means that for once the Coens have created a character and not just a caricature. Larry is a serious man, but surrounded, unfortunately, by people who will never take him seriously and who themselves epitomise triviality. The comedy is built on a painfully increasing suspense, not a thriller suspense of crime and violence (the potential for this in the plot repeatedly leads nowhere) but one of hopelessness and anxiety. The mood, if you can imagine it, is that of Fargo but without the homicidal killers, the laughs entirely bitter.

This is a cruel film offering neither redemption nor meaning and one to avoid if you're susceptible to anxiety-induced ulcers. Some might say this brings it closer to life, although one does still dream of the day that the Coens progress from cynicism to a more worldly compassion. Until then A Serious Man will rank amongst their best.