Review: A Serious Man

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Stars: Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind

***originally written 21st December 2009***

“What have I done?” “What’s going on?” “Why is this happening?” These are big open questions, and exactly the sort of questions that Larry Gopnik is moved to ask in A Serious Man, the latest film from the Coen brothers. Two years after they scooped Oscars for No Country For Old Men, the Coens are back with a film so anti-Oscar it’s probably intentional. There are no big names. Or even particularly known names. There’s a prologue utterly unrelated to anything that follows (or is it?). It belongs to no genre. And the plot? The plot? Hell, I just watched it and I don’t really know.
In brief then, it’s 1967, suburban America, and Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a married-with-children professor whose life is about to fall apart all at once. His wife wants a divorce. His lay-about brother has gambling problems. His son owes a local boy $20 for some marijuana. A student is trying to bribe him into getting a better grade. Someone is sending letters to his superiors at the university that are calling his reputation into question. And his neighbours are weird. All Larry wants to know is… why him?

And that’s what A Serious Man is about. Those times when we all ask “what have I done to deserve this?” It’s a film about unanswered questions. To his credit, Larry tries to find out, visiting three different Rabbi (Rabbis? what’s the plural here?) to get answers to his existential dilemmas, each visit bringing it’s own special kind of failure to his predicament.

Sounds thin for a 105 minute film? It is and it isn’t. This is definitely the Coens’ most low-key effort. Most scenes involve two or three people talking, usually in an office or domestic environment of some kind. The rare instances of something spicier, sex, or violence, always turn out to be dream sequences. You can sense the Coens chuckling at their audience as they repeated pull the rug out from any sense of thrill or danger. The biggest of all being the film’s outstanding final shot, which also marks the single most abrupt ending to a movie I’ve ever seen.

And yet… and yet… A Serious Man is also a feast. For one thing, it looks gorgeous. This is a vision of the 60s to rival Mad Men for sheer eye-candy. Roger Deakins’ photography is impecable. Larry’s neighbourhood is the most chilling/beautiful suburban hell this side of Edward Scissorhands. And the shot that the opening credits roll just prior to will have you pondering “what am I looking at?” The answer is inspired.

But it’s not only a beautiful surface. The film makes you itch with the sensation that something bigger is being touched upon amid it’s confused phone conversations and Yiddish misunderstandings. The Coens are thinking big here, akin to the soul-searching of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. However, where that film too often hung heavy under depression, A Serious Man lightens the mood with some deliciously muted humour. Don’t be mistaken, these aren’t laugh-out-loud moments. Instead this is more a comedy of nuance. Expressions. Inflections. The minutiae of human behaviour. In short, the stuff I really love.

Credit to Michael Stuhlbarg for his performance also. He makes Larry a warm figure to follow, in a role which so easily could have come across as whiney and whinging. He carries the whole piece, containing a slowly boiling panic at his unravelling life. He breaks down once, and it’s actually quite touching. Carter Burwell, the man behind nearly all of the Coens’ scores, also gets to shine here, with some cues that really breathe humanity into scenes.

So what are the answers? You may as well ask why the Coens made this film in the first place. This retelling of the story of Job. Why does anything happen? Frustratingly for some, I’m sure, there are no direct answers. Is the ending so abrupt because there are no answers? Is the film really a critique of religion’s inability to impact on modern man? Or modern man’s inability to accept it? I can’t tell you. Have I been short-changed? I don’t know!

I know I honestly haven’t ever seen a film quite like this, and it’s an oddity in the Coens’ catalogue. Perhaps only Barton Fink is open to as much interpretation. Because of this many will walk away dissatisfied. Maybe I am too. It’s really hard to tell! I love films with mysteries in them. A Serious Man has it’s share, and I feel the strong suspicion that repeated viewings will reap rewards. With that in mind I’m going to give it the same score I gave Avatar last week. But there probably aren’t two films more different.

9 of 10

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