REVIEW: A Serious Man [2009]

“Did he tell you about the Goy’s teeth?”

Despite the prevalent use of Hebrew without translation and, I’m sure, many instances of Jewish culture that I am unfamiliar with, I really enjoyed the new Coen Brothers film A Serious Man. The film, while a bit odd and seemingly schizophrenic in tone, is vintage Coen, harkening to the days of Barton Fink with its dark subtlety. Following up an all-out comedy in Burn After Reading, the new movie would seem out of place for viewers unfamiliar with the directors’ work, however, I feel that it fits in perfectly. Every actor is superb, the slow moving and gorgeously shot cinematography is magnificent, and the story itself is witty in its use of extreme karmic retribution. I’m not quite sure if they are blatantly mocking the theme of Jewish guilt and the religious strain being a “serious man” takes in life, or if they were just using it as a springboard to tell an enjoyable yarn, but either way, this is one solid piece of filmmaking.

The beginning kind of reminded me of Inglourious Basterds in that it started completely out of left field. That one was so different in tone and pacing from the trailers that until a Nazi appeared on screen I thought I was at the wrong movie. With A Serious Man, I knew that it took place in a 1970s type era, but we were welcomed into a 19th century, Eastern European Jewish town. A husband comes home after selling his animals and explains how he was helped by an older gentleman she knew. She responds in deadpan that the ‘man’ he met had died some time ago, concluding that they must be cursed. This Good Samaritan, having just done a mitzvah, arrives for some soup, causing our first sign of the fantastical and unexplained. This Dybbuk, (demon from hell embodying a human form), shows the kind of dark forces at work when looking into the wrong side of a devout Jewish life. He is an omen for the trouble to come as we soon are introduced to our lead in Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik. If anyone ever in the history of mankind was cursed, well, Gopnik is he.

But before being transported to the film’s present, (our 70s), we are shown some of the creepiest credits I’ve experienced in some time. The screen is black with a thin font appearing to show the actors’ names before dissolving into smoke as they disappear. And the music is chock full of tension, giving the audience a palpable sense of foreboding, getting us ready for what is now assumed to be a story full of evil and heartache. Even the three title cards used throughout the film arrive with this resonating tone as though following them will be tragedy. The Coens don’t follow through on the promise, however, at least not completely. The story of Larry Gopnik is definitely full of hardship in an alarmingly continuous way, but the entire journey is infused with humor at each turn. This brand of comedy is pitch black and occurs at the cost of some characters’ dismay, but that’s what the Coens have been doing for two decades—it is their trademark. Granted, the laughs aren’t huge, but something about a sly smirk at another’s detriment warms my heart. It’s all happening to them after all; thank God it’s not to me.

One does have to wonder what the motivations of the film are, even though it succeeds without. Watching, as I did, not understanding all the Jewish rituals or Hebrew being spoken as common everyday speech, was satisfying on its own because the characters were so real and three-dimensional. I couldn’t help but get behind Gopnik and hope that things would turn around as his seemingly ideal, yet uninspired, existence fell apart around him. And why is he made to endure this trial of spirit? Is he a distant relative to the Shtetl family at the start, cursed for whatever they did back then? Or was that scene just a prologue introducing the mysticism of Judaism and the rest just God’s way of tempting him to be a ‘serious man’ and follow his religion? We are talking about a man who has been begged by his wife to see a Rabbi, been on the fringe of his religion thinking that sending his children to Hebrew school was enough, and who deals with science and physics on a daily basis—a possible slap of the face towards Creationism? Maybe it was all a test, pushing him to the brink of poverty and sorrow, begging him to take a bribe offered by a student in exchange for a passing grade, (David Kang is so good in that role). If he could refuse the money with everything that was occurring around him, maybe then he would be saved and proven as a man of faith. I’m not sure though, and that wonder of the unknown is just one more reason to love the film, keeping all interpretations open. And the ending is so powerful and appropriate, the inevitable conclusion to the unfortunate series of events—absolutely profound in its simplicity and abruptness.

Besides the filmmaking itself, though, I need to make mention of the players. Stuhlbarg is brilliant; there is no other word for the performance. He is passivity incarnate, watching his world fall apart and yet taking it with a calmness of being that’s unnatural. His questioning of faith and the validity of the Rabbis he visits is hilarious in its pragmatic honesty and his need to help others and sacrifice his own happiness is selfless beyond words. It’s just too bad its not enough to save him from the chaos that surrounds. As for those he encounters on this journey, no one can be pointed out as having been a failure in his/her role. It’s great seeing two comedians in Spaceballs’ George Wyner and “The Big Bang Theory’s” Simon Helberg as Rabbis; Sari Lennick has the best facial expressions when systematically dealing with the situation of leaving her husband for another man; Adam Arkin’s timing as Larry’s friend/lawyer works wonders; and Fred Melamed’s ‘respect’ and ease towards the man who’s wife he is stealing as Sy Ableman is unforgettable. His deep-voiced drone could lull anyone into a sense of security; I’d give him my firstborn if he asked. It is truly amazing how each and every piece falls into place to create, what I think, is the Coens’ best film since Fargo. Yes, No Country for Old Men was a brilliant piece of cinema in its tone and execution, but A Serious Man does all that while still retaining the auteurs’ sense of humor and cynicism, harkening back to a time when they made gems with every attempt.

A Serious Man 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] Michael Stuhlbarg (right) stars as Larry Gopnik and Adam Arkin (left) stars as Larry’s divorce lawyer Don in writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen’s A SERIOUS MAN, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Wilson Webb
[2] Michael Stuhlbarg (left) stars as Larry Gopnik and Richard Kind (right) stars as Larry’s brother Arthur in writer/directors Joel & Ethan Coen’s A SERIOUS MAN, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit: Wilson Webb


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