But others (me included) see it as a triumph -- definitely one of the top five films of 2009. I don't have a definitive, numbered ranking for my favorites of this year, and have little desire to make one, but Inglorious Basterds and Precious (to be reviewed next) are up there, too.
The story skips from incident to unrelenting incident that unravel the fragile life of Larry Gopnik (a convincingly neurotic Michael Stuhlbarg). Completely to his surprise, his wife announces one day that she plans to leave him for another man. She feels no guilt, and Larry's only consolation comes from the "other man" himself: Sy Ableman, a kind of pre-Dr. Phil figure who uses the soothing -- yet meaningless -- words of self-help mumbo-jumbo philosophy to avoid conflict with Larry. Fred Melamed's portrayal of Sy will have you writhing in anger; his smugness highlights Stuhlbarg's helplessness even more.
Meanwhile, Larry's son steals money from his parents to buy weed; his clean-cut, WASPy neighbors the Brandts (no relation) glare at him from their front yard, seemingly just for existing; a foreign student in his Physics class tries to pay for a higher grade with bribe money; his brother spends most of his time lounging on Larry's living room couch, suctioning pus out of his sebaceous cyst with a machine. The attorneys he hires and the rabbis he consults offer him empty advice. He has nowhere to turn . . . except to the dreams and fantasies he uses for comfort and escape, but that the Coens ultimately crush with tragedy.
From scene to scene, trouble assaults Larry from all corners. He's such a pushover, and you have to pity him . . . But at the same time, the Coens' style of execution, their ability to ratchet the stakes, the tension, and the WTF-factor, makes for laughs. That is their way. And that's one of many reasons it's a shame this film did not receive a wider, longer release. If anyone understands the close link between comedy and tragedy, it's them. Think back to Fargo. When Steve Buscemi's remains shoot out a wood mulcher, it's disturbing, but also so sudden and bizarre that you have to laugh. And in Blood Simple, you have such a complicated series of misunderstandings and unnecessary violence that you chuckle to relieve the tension of your guts being wrenched.
With its pungent blend of oddity and realism, A Serious Man goes even more boldly into the abyss, the realm of absurdity in which Joel and Ethan Coen have firmly established themselves as kings.
On unrelated notes . . .