Movie Review: A Serious Man

The very first scene of “A Serious Man” is a short fairytale set in a Polish shtetl. While one can spend hours figuring out how this fable connects to the rest of the film, interpretation is futile. Directors Joel and Ethan Coen have repeatedly stated that this story had nothing to do with the rest of the film. So, why put it in? Because, we have officially entered the world of the Coen Brothers, a world like few others; a world where they can do whatever they like.

How does one make the sudden leap from 1800s Eastern Europe to 1960s Midwestern America? Simply, with the stunning jump from a snow covered village to the inside of an old headphone blasting Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” It’s a transition that reminded me of Kubrick jumping from dawn of man to the space age in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” This is the very first glimpse of the world we’ll be looking at for the next two hours.
“A Serious Man” is the Coen Brothers at their most schadenfreude. The unlucky schlub they focus on this time is Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg). Gopnick is a physics professor at a Minnesota college in 1967. He embodies the “nice Jewish boy” that all Jewish mothers hope their daughters will someday marry.
While Larry tries his best to be a mensch, his life is an utter mess. His wife (Sarri Lennick) plans to divorce Larry and leave him for the too-nice-for-his-own-good Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). His son (Aaron Wolff) spends more time getting high than studying for his Bar Mitzvah and his daughter (Jessica McManus) totally resents everything about him. Meanwhile, Larry’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) can’t find a place to live. Elsewhere, he is tempted by a bribe and a seductive neighbor. In order to sort out his problems, he seeks the help of three very unhelpful rabbis.
When comparing “A Serious Man” to all other Coen Brothers films, it seems so similar but yet very different. It is quite possibly their most personal film. Not only does it mark their first film set in their homeland of Minnesota since “Fargo,” but it’s also the first time they’ve chronicled their childhood growing up in a suburban, Jewish, middle class family.
One of the most distinctive trademarks of a Coen Brothers film is its emphasis on each character’s quirks. Usually, these quirks, involve the accents, behaviors, or dialects of a certain area. However, the Minnesotans of “A Serious Man” don’t talk in that Scandinavian accent like the ones in “Fargo.” This film is more focused on the quirks of the Jewish community. The Coens focus on the hilarious habits of referring to non-Jews as “goy,” overly congested voices, or the habits of making weird nose sounds [Editor’s Note: Just spend a day with me, and you’ll understand this].
The Coen Brothers do not rely on these stereotypes as a way of being mean-spirited or self-loathing, but rather as a loving tribute to their people.
One of the greatest creative risks the Coen Brothers took in making this film was compiling a starless cast of mostly theater actors. This decision pays off, as the audience feels not so much focused on the actors as they are on the characters. Stuhlbarg steals the show as Larry. He makes Larry’s struggles seem too painfully real. Melamed turns Sy into someone you want to hug and punch at the same time. Perhaps the most recognizable actor in the cast is Kind, who is best known as Larry David’s annoying cousin on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Here, he is typecast as the bothersome relative but he manages to bring a level of depth to Uncle Arthur and helping create of the more emotional scenes the Coen Brothers have ever shot.
The second creative risk the Coen Brothers took here lies in the story itself. The plot never really goes anywhere in terms of action. And without giving much away, I’d just like to say that things just have a way of getting worse and worse for poor Larry.
Often the Coen Brothers are criticized for being so hateful toward their characters and making fun of them. However, they are filmmakers, and therefore observers. Why not mock someone when they do something that is, well, ridiculous?
One thing I sometimes tend to tire of in films are Biblical references. That’s mainly because directors will throw in an image of some guy laying with his arms spread out, call it a Jesus metaphor, and then beg for an Oscar.
However, the Coen Brothers are not like that. They use Torah stories and Jewish myths to create a story that questions but doesn’t deny the existence of god, one that tries to determine how one can keep the faith in such a cruel world.
I unfortunately don’t know enough Biblical tales to point out exactly which ones were used here. Many have pointed out that Larry embodies Job, another good person whose constant suffering was a test by God. I found the story to be an allusion to Adam & Eve. Larry’s nearly perfect suburban street could be his Eden, while the temptations of money and adultery are his equivalent of the Tree of Knowledge.
At the end of the film, audience reactions seemed mixed. Maybe the reason I liked the film so much wasn’t just for a Coen bias, but because of a deep personal connection to it. I remember the days of listening to recordings of my Torah portion to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah and even more so how surreal the actual day felt.
You can be either Jew or Gentile to enjoy the darkly comic “A Serious Man.” It’s a film that will entertain, frustrate, and infuriate. Most importantly, there is not one answer to the films religious questions about life. It does what a great movie should do: rather than interpret itself, it lets the audience member interpret it instead. Does the film believe in God? Is the film existential? What does that tornado mean? To all this, I say; oy vey.
Unfortunately, this deeply intelligent film is only playing in a few places nationwide. To see it for yourself, either head to New York, or write Focus Features a letter and beg them to release the film in your hometown already. It’ll be a much more enjoyable evening than the one you’d have seeing “Couple’s Retreat.” Also, leave all interpretations of the very open-ended ending in the comments. I’m still very confused by it as well.
If You Liked this Movie, You’ll also Like: Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, American Beauty, Blue Velvet, Lolita, anything really, really, Jewish