A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009): United States – directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Rated R by the MPAA – contains strong language, brief and distant nudity, drug use, and mature themes

The end credits proclaim, “No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture” and it may be true that none were physically injured, but it sure appears that many were emotionally tortured.  In fact, the poor, luckless hero of the film seems to be a modern Job, with most of his wealth, family, and friends taken from him, and the people he turns to for advice prove useless.

The hero in the Coen brothers most recent blacker-than-pitch comedy is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor at a university in a small town.  He is Jewish, his family is Jewish, and most of his friends and acquaintances are Jewish.  Almost everyone in the film is Jewish, besides the South Korean student that attempts to bribe Larry in an attempt to have his grade changed, and Larry’s anti-Semitic neighbors.  But everyone else is Jewish, include Larry’s wife’s soon-to-be new husband, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed).

The first scenes with Larry involve a check-up at the doctor’s office, intercut with his son sitting in Hebrew school with a portable radio stuck in his ear.  The camera performs a visual examination on both characters, checking out their ears and eyes as the doctor checks out Larry.  Larry’s son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), gets in trouble with the teacher and has his radio confiscated.  Larry receives a clean bill of health and goes on his way.

Larry’s life goes downhill quickly.  His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) abruptly informs him that she needs a divorce, and a ritual divorce at that, because Sy won’t marry her in the faith without it.  Larry is surprised.  To compound issues, Larry’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is staying with the family and occupying the couch, forcing Larry to pull the cot into the living room.  Larry’s daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus) is rarely present, either physically or emotionally, while Danny is in trouble with the local pot dealer, a large kid who lives down the road.

The movie doesn’t have a story arc as much as consist of a series of unfortunate events.  Larry gets into a car accident, people unexpectedly die, and even the three rabbis to whom Larry turns prove useless.  The first is young and inexperienced, the second tells pointless stories, while the third is too busy thinking to grant Larry an audience.  The movie lags during certain of these sections, but picks up again at the end, providing a climax reminiscent of Magnolia [review here].

The production is generally gorgeous, with Roger Deakins returning to the Coen Brothers side as cinematographer.  The time period is fully realized, complete with lustrously wooden kitchen cabinets.  A variety of interesting angles and focus effects help create a slightly surreal atmosphere at times, as the Coen Brothers are wont to do.  Great acting helps complete the illusion, with a cast of nobodies and newbies rounding out the Jewish community.  The opening credit sequence rams home this fact with humorous effect as the actors’ names are slammed onto the screen with increasing rapidity, much like huge Hollywood ensembles do with their A-list casts.

In spite of the black comedy and the gorgeous look I never felt fully engaged with A Serious Man.  I was sympathetic toward Larry, but was never able to empathize with him, perhaps because my knowledge of Jewish culture is lacking.  I have the feeling that there is a great deal to the film that I missed; perhaps multiple viewings will produce a different reaction.  There appears to be a great deal involving academia, Jewish traditions, and Old Testament theology, including the obvious parallels to the story of Job.  An opening Jewish folktale probably holds more secrets than an initial viewing could yield to a viewer of my intellect.  I am sure that some people will be able to take a great more from A Serious Man, and I suspect others will be utterly lost in the misery of Larry’s life.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed and appreciated the film, although I do not believe it belongs in the upper echelons of the Coen Brothers oeuvre.

2 thoughts on “A Serious Man

  1. Candace

    I don’t know if there IS such a thing as understanding it completely. I got out wondering whether I was missing something, but as I read reviews of it, it appears no one totally knows what was going on. Besides the Coens, that is. They probably have it worked out to some degree. Or maybe not. There did seem to be a theme of some sort regarding not being able to be sure of anything. Embracing the mystery, I believe, was mentioned several times.

  2. Tim Irwin Post author

    Very interesting point, and one that I wished I had picked up more in the film. But it’s definitely there, both in Larry’s physics lectures and in Arthur’s mentacular. I do enjoy movies that are constructed to symbolize what they are about, and it certainly seems that the uncertainty principle is going on here. I also like it when films become less coherent as they approach the end, like Mulholland Dr. or No Country for Old Men. Thanks for the interesting comment!

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