By Don Simpson | October 14, 2009
Director: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Writer(s): Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Wagner Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff
Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a serious man, a physics professor at a sleepy Midwestern university, not to mention a seemingly morally just man; some will even see Larry as the Coen Brothers’ reincarnation of Job (you know, from the Book of Job) in the year 1967. Nothing is going right for Larry. Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a man who is overflowing with self-confidence (unlike Larry). Arthur (Richard Kind), Larry’s unemployable and burdensome brother, is sleeping on Judith and Larry’s sofa; that is until Larry and Arthur get booted out to the curb by Judith, then they share a motel room. Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolf) is a pothead who prefers to listen to Jefferson Airplane on his transister radio rather than paying attention at Hebrew school. His daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) is stealing money from his wallet to save up for a nose job. An asian graduate student is apparently attempting to bribe Larry for a passing grade while simultaneously threatening to sue him for defamation (but things are a little blurry thanks to their language barrier) – all while Larry is under consideration for tenure. On top of all that, the luscious and lonely woman next door endlessly tempts Larry’s loins by sunbathing nude in her backyard.
Struggling to make sense of why Hashem (aka God) would challenge him so much, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis asking them to interpret Hashem’s motives. Larry is essentially prey to the age-old dilemna: How could God truly be just and kind if the world he created is so bad? And why does God seem to challege good people the most? Many people have scurried away from religion because they felt the same way and we sense by the end of the film that Larry might be scurrying away to atheism as well.
The Coen Brothers book-end A Serious Man with equally oblique and perplexing scenes. The film opens with the Coen Brothers at their peak of ambiguity – with what appears to be a Yiddish folktale taking place in an Eastern European shtetl sometime in the distant past. There is no apparent connection between the scenes that occur prior to the title sequence and the main body of the film; though it could be read (and several critics have already jumped to this assumption) that Larry’s life is cursed because of these actions that occurred in the past. The ending finds the Coen Brothers at their most depressing and pessimistic – and this just when we think things cannot get any worse for Larry.
A Serious Man is being heralded by some as being a return to classic Coen Brothers – meaning quirky art house flicks like Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink – while others are excited about it being their first unabashedly Jewish film. Well, A Serious Man is certainly much more mature than Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink but unfortunately in this case mature equates to serious and slow and for some viewers probably boring. There is absolutely no doubting that A Serious Man is a Jewish film, in fact it would probably be helpful if the filmgoer has a basic knowledge of Judaism in order to understand the plot on a higher level.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography is absolutely entrancing and the acting performances are all top notch. Really the only “faults” of A Serious Man are its dreadfully slow pacing and overtly depressing and hopeless tone – and they are only considered faults because both qualities are so far removed from the rest of the Coen Brothers’ resume (A Serious Man plays like a stereotypical Eastern European art film – and I’m not necessarily saying that is a bad thing, it’s just a jarring break from form for them). However, thanks to the Coens’ knack for accentuating the minutia of everyday life to the point of absurdity, even in the most harrowing of scenes, there are a few good chuckles sprinkled throughout A Serious Man that are able to occasionally take the edge off; otherwise, this is one hell of a film about a man whose life is a living hell.