Review: A Serious Man

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The Coen brothers have developed critical acclaim for making black comedies/awkward tragedies that depict small-time people getting in way over their heads, who for one reason or another are motivated to do things out of the ordinary because the natural order of the world and society has wronged them in some way.

“A Serious Man,” however, is about a man who doesn’t do anything, to whom bad/annoying things happen. This story of a confused suburban Jewish man in the ’60s wrestling with life’s meaning is therefore an important step in the evolution of the Coens’ theme-driven film-making. Borrowing on an autobiographical context (Minnesota, Judaism, etc.) for the brothers, it moves on to greater cosmic questions but with the same quirky and ironic spirit that have garnered the Coens all their deserved attention over the last 20 years.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is that one Coen brothers character in every movie — you know, the innocent one who manages to suffer a seemingly unfair fate (think Steve Buscemi in “The Big Lebowski” or most recently Richard Jenkins’ character in “Burn After Reading”) — only he gets to pilot this film. In that spirit, an unknown Stuhlbarg is cast in the lead (although he was clearly up for the challenge). Larry is a mild-mannered math professor with a family in an ideal suburban home only his wife wants a divorce and his kids are nightmarish. Little by little the annoyances of his life pile up from the foreign student trying to bribe him for a passing grade while simultaneously suing him for defamation to his socially immature brother (Richard Kind) who won’t leave his house.

Larry seeks answers from the rabbis in his community to understand the mess his life has suddenly become. One rabbi tells him he needs a change of perspective, another tells him the story of “The Goy’s Teeth,” a hilarious bit about a dentist who tries desperately to make meaning of a Hebrew message engraved in a patient’s teeth only to find he was better off not worrying about it. None of their advice seems to help at the time — but it’s dead on. The Goy’s Teeth scene in particular is one of the brilliant moments where the Coen brothers let you know pretty clearly what their intentions are with the film while giving you something to laugh about. That’s their strength and it’s all over “Serious Man.”

Much like “Burn After Reading,” this film is one that makes a thematic point out of the audience’s attempt to squeeze meaning out of everything. By turning Larry into a Job-like figure to whom inexplicable misfortune happens, we’re forced to put everything into perspective. When Kind’s character, Arthur, has a tantrum in the middle of the night wondering why God has given him nothing and he points out that Larry has kids and a job, suddenly our perspective changes. Suddenly everything we thought mattered in this film and was of critical importance is really not such a big deal. Our desperate search for answers in both our lives and in this film, our tendency to over-analyze and derive reason from everything comes to a halt; the Coen bros. have worked their magic again.

“Serious Man” is one of their best in recent memory because it not only feels rooted and personal for them, but it moves toward a greater discussion of previously treaded upon themes and plots from their previous work. It is a challenging film and those who have struggled with the Coen brothers before will struggle again, but for the cerebral and intellectual moviegoer it’s outstanding.

The truth is, we don’t have all the answers to make sense of life’s events (or a story’s plot points) and neither do the Coen brothers. One insignificant character in the film who appears to have an answer to just one of Larry’s myriad of minor problems dies instantly with hysterical irony. Don’t go into “A Serious Man” looking for answers, go into it looking for a change of perspective.


5/5 Stars

Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed