You could say physics professor Dr. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is going through a bit of a rough patch. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), is leaving him for an old acquaintance (Fred Melamed); a disgruntled student (David Kang) is trying to bribe him for a passing grade; his tenure is in question due to anonymous letters denouncing his morality; his son, Danny (Aaron Wolff) on the eve of his bar mitzvah, is smoking dope, and his helpless brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), who has been sleeping on his couch, is running afoul of the law for playing in illegal poker tournaments. In short, Gopnik is undergoing a crises of faith, and the Rabbis he turns to are unable to offer him any substantive solace or solutions. In the Coens’ universe, of course, Gopnik is but one of a long line of set-upon male protagonists, including everybody from H.I. McDunnough to the Dude, all of whom, in the course of their time on screen, go though distinct “rough patches.” Like Barton Fink, another despairing Jew, the world seems to be turning against him. But unlike Fink, who is filled with his own élan and pompous self-aggrandizement, Gopnik appears to be doing nothing wrong to earn such scornful punishment. He is kind, decent, trying to do the right thing, but still the forces connive against him. This is, perhaps, one of the Coens’ least enigmatic and most piercing works to date. The film is funny, to be sure — their ability to derive cruelly funny pleasure from the torture of their characters is virtually unmatched — but at the film’s core is a far more significant and central question: What are God’s signs trying to tell us, and how the hell can anyone interpret them? In this way, it feels a good deal more personal than some of their earlier works — which often get criticized for being at too far of an emotional remove. Working along similar lines as the Talmud-like fable that opens the film, the subsequent narrative arc allows for simultaneous arguments for and against the methodology of the higher power.
Regardless of your perspective, the brothers Coen have certainly lost none of their cinematic power. Their eye for detail — both visual and auditory — is spectacular. In their hands, the simplest of moments — say, the clearing of a throat, or the manner in which a handshake is proffered — take on a distinctly profound effect. This film also has echoes of some of their earlier work, including an exchange with Danny and his friends that, in pace and execution, spools out like something directly lifted from Lebowski, but rather than make another film out of these expertly honed details, one gets the sense they are digging a bit deeper into their own philosophical anguish. Whatever the case, this quiet film still builds into a startlingly moving crescendo. The Coens stalwart lack of pity has never been more effective.
This might be the most Woody Allen-esque of their films, in humor, tone and, most significantly, representing some trace of their own connection to the plight of their protagonist. The Coens have historically kept very close to the vest in terms of their own personal relationship to their narratives. At least, one surmises, until now.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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