While Joel and Ethan Coen are best known for crafting off-kilter stories featuring a cast of quirky characters, their latest film focuses on a perfectly average Midwestern man watching his world crumble.
A departure from last year’s Oscar-nominated “No Country for Old Men,” the brothers’ latest film, “A Serious Man,” follows Larry Gopnik, a physics professor whose life is thrown into turmoil when his wife (Sari Lennick) announces that she wants a divorce. And, by the way, she’s invited her newly widowed boyfriend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), to move in, so Larry needs to find a hotel.
“He thinks his life is settled. He has two kids that he loves and a relationship he has not questioned in years. And then, one by one, things start falling apart,” says actor Michael Stuhlbarg, whose performance as the bewildered Gopnik represents the heart of the film.
Although Stuhlbarg earned a Tony nomination in 2005 for his role in Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” and has several Shakespearean performances to his credit, this is the actor’s first leading role in a film -- which is precisely why the Coens chose him. They just didn’t immediately realize which part he was right for.
“I had been working on both Larry and Uncle Arthur because they said I was going to play one or the other,” Stuhlbarg explains. “And, eventually, it came down to playing Larry, so I felt a kind of relief that I could just focus on one of them.”
In fact, with the exceptions of Adam Arkin as Gopnik’s divorce attorney and Richard Kind, who took over the quirky Uncle Arthur role, much of the cast are unfamiliar faces -- a detail that helps immerse the viewer in the tightly knit Jewish community in which “A Serious Man” takes place (and from which the Coens drew their inspiration). While it provides several belly laughs through its detailed look at a fish-out-of-water culture in 1967 Minnesota, the movie, which opens Oct. 2, is grounded in universal, almost existential, themes.
“I have great affection for (Larry),” Stuhlbarg says. “He’s going through the kind of struggles that we all go through when things get thrown at us in life that we don’t know how to deal with: his relationship with his religion, his relationships with those people closest to him and feeling alone.”
The Juilliard-trained actor, whose TV credits are as diverse as “Ugly Betty” and “Law & Order,” found working with the Coen brothers to be a precise and professional experience.
“They’re very particular about what is on the page and want you to stick to their words. But I also found them very generous. And they left me alone to do what I wanted to do,” he says.
The back and forth allowed Stuhlbarg to convey just the right mixture of heartbreak and confusion to make Gopnik a hopelessly sympathetic character, which is why his performance could easily catch the eyes of Oscar voters come February. But Stuhlbarg is merely enjoying the ride.
“Oh, gosh,” he says, pausing briefly to chuckle. “I’m glad to have work. I find that it’s best to take one step at a time and cross each bridge as they come to you.”