When A Serious Man was released last year it was widely billed as a “black comedy,” leading me to think it would be something in the vein of The Ladykillers (2004). The only thing about the Cohen Brothers that is predictable is that each of their new films will offer something unpredictable. Aside from banter of the foul-mouthed boys during their bus ride to Hebrew school, there is not much that could really be described as “comic” here, and the movie is just as somber as its title implies. The atmosphere is often bleak and disquieting, and the constant allusions to the Torah and Jewish folklore tied to a modern-day story of a math professor who struggles with his beliefs in the face of undeserved tribulations and moral dillemas make this a dense film. But the atmosphere is still something you can sink your teeth into, as in the case of all of the Cohen Brothers’ films.
The directors are more in their element here than in films like The Ladykillers or O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), as the story, after a pseudo-folk tale to set the mood, is set in late ’60s St. Louis Park Minnesota, where the Cohens grew up. The costumes and production design are wonderfully evocative of the era.