Fall Movie Preview: Deception And Dark Laughs in Coen Brothers Comedy, ‘A Serious Man’

Brad Pitt and George Clooney. Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin and Woody Harrelson. Tom Hanks. George Clooney again. Billy Bob Thornton. George Clooney a third time.

Joel and Ethan Coen like Hollywood leading men in their movies, those Oscar winners and tabloid staples who put butts in theaters seats and bring their twisty dark tales to life. After “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers” and “No Country for Old Men” and “Burn After Reading” comes “A Serious Man” and its star… Michael Stuhlbarg?

Yup, the Coen brothers are switching gears, at least when it comes to casting. Their story, though, hits themes—deception, betrayal, crime, humiliation, alienation, pride—that the writer/directors have returned to again and again in their work.

“I just didn’t want to be the one who messed everything up,” Stuhlbarg told MTV News.

A New York-based theater actor, Stuhlbarg became friendly with Joel Cohen and his wife Frances McDormand, which led to an offer to audition for a small, Yiddish-language part at the beginning of the film. Stuhlbarg hired a tutor for a crash course, but the brothers ended up casting a fluent actor.

And that was it, until he got a call to come in to read for one of the lead roles, brothers Larry and Arthur Gopnik. Larry’s a struggling physics professor in the Midwest during the late-’60s. His wife loves another man, his kids are pure trouble, his deadbeat brother is sleeping on his couch. Life has taken a darkly comedic turn and no one—not even the local rabbis—want to help. But honestly, this is only the set-up, and to get a taste of the film, you must—must!—watch the truly excellent trailer.

Stuhlbarg waited for months to hear back about his audition, calling up Joel every so often to see if he’d landed a part. A month before shooting was set to begin, Stuhlbarg’s phone rang.

“’We’ll put you out of your misery,'” he was told. “You’re Larry.”

And so Michael Stuhlbarg joined Pitt and Clooney in the long line of illustrious Cohen brother leading men. “A Serious Man,” co-starring Richard Kind (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) as Arthur, opens on October 2.

“Joel and Ethan work as if they’re one head,” Stuhlbarg said. “They’re very causal, very low key, very easy to be with. And they’re prepared. When you show up on set, they know exactly what they’re going to be doing on every day. They have storyboarded the entire movie. They’re very generous in terms of allowing the actors their own space to do what they need to do. They’re sweet and generous and the movie is full of humor and wonderfully full of pathos.”