A Serious Man is the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen, names synonymous with black comedy. This film is as about as dark as a black comedy gets, delving deeper and deeper into the psyche of a man and his damaged family.
Larry Gopnik is a Jewish man who is in the middle of a tragedy that he calls life. His wife is leaving him for another man, with no prior explanation. His daughter is swiping money out of his wallet, and her only concern is what she is going to wear and when her uncle will free up the bathroom. His son is in trouble at school with his bar mitzvah closing in fast. His brother could either be a genius or just crazy. Things just aren’t going good for Larry. What seemed like a quiet normal suburban life has turned into his worst nightmare. Larry is our proverbial Job, being tested with everything that his God gave him.
The problem? Well, unlike Job who gets a pay off in the end, Larry receives no such respite. We are tortured endlessly through this characters eyes, as other people’s problems become his. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for Larry, just a long dark bleak walk to the end of the film reel. What makes it worse is that the character of Larry is written to spineless, and his only option he pursues is meetings with the local rabbis. One of the funniest scenes (and lightest) scenes of the film comes from his first meeting with a young Rabbi Scott (played by the always funny Simon Helberg). In those rare moments where we come up for breath from the suffocating feel of Larry’s life, you see the humor of the subject. These moments, unfortunately for the audience, are too far and few between.
Michael Stuhlbarg does an admirable job as the down on his luck Larry. He is the bright spot in the film, he holds it together when nothing else in the film does. This will likely be a breakout role for the actor who has to this point been stuck in mainly background roles and spots on television shows. He seems to be making the leap from stage to screen quite nicely. Richard Kind as the eccentrically creepy Uncle Arthur is one of the few background characters that isn’t downright detestable. I’m not sure it isn’t because he was written that way or if Kind lends a certain vulnerability to the role than none of the other actors can convey. Every other actor in this film is downright heinous and unlikeable. That may be the point, but I can’t enjoy sitting through a film where the only character you can relate to is one that is constantly being kicked while he is down.
Like all Coen Brothers films, this one is shot beautifully. They vividly paint an amazing looking portrait of mid-western suburbia in the 60s. The opening scene is lit so well (and unexpectedly out of place). How it relates to the rest of the film though I still can’t figure out. I’ll admit that I was lost to the meaning of it and still am. The ending of the film comes so abruptly that I’m still having trouble getting a handle about the overall feel of the film. It ends with almost no closure to any of the characters, and leaves virtually everything unchanged.
I may be committing blasphemy, but I just didn’t have fun in the film. Sure, I laughed from time to time, but those laughs were soon forgotten. The whole film felt to be an exercise in depressing the audience. I may not worship at the alter of the Coen Brothers, so I’m not afraid to admit that I felt their narrative was ill conceived and lacked an ending. If you are a huge fan of the Coen Brothers, this film might be something you want to see. If you’ve never been a fan of their brand of dark comedy, this one isn’t going into new territory, best to stay at home.
Another Take From Zac:
The Coen brothers annual entry, A Serious Man, is their oddest film since Barton Fink and for all the thought provoking twists and turns that may befuddle, it remains a funny and often hilariously sad portrait of a man trying to find himself.
Setting you up for something different from the get go, we dive into a scene between a European Jewish wife and her husband, presumably sometime one to two hundred years before the films setting of 1967, as the bicker over a chance encounter the husband had with a man that has been presumed dead for sometime by the wife. Jump ahead to our main characters, Larry Gopnik and Danny Gopnik, inter-cutting between a pair of events that fill come full circle and not without consequence. The film from here follows Larry primarily with diversions into Danny’s life in the final days leading up to his bar mitzvah. What entails though is a strange, random, yet lightly intertwined series of events filled with black humor and many an existential consequence.
The direction and writing from the Coen brothers is as sharp as ever as this very different film would clearly come undone in less skillful hands. In fact, if the Coen brothers were not the ones behind this film I don’t think there is a chance in hell anyone studio would have made this thing. It is such a unique and intriguing picture, yet incredibly difficult to explain to make the film sound both appealing and convey how clever of a film it really is without coming off as a fool. Certainly not for everyone, it challenges the viewer to think and sticks in your brain well after leaving the theater. Trying to decipher the tale is half the fun, even if it gives you a headache, and it will have you randomly lighting up as a new idea or clue dawns on your brain.
The Coen’s also deserve accolades for assembling a pitch perfect cast, as usual, from very few names you will recognize. Outside a few faces, most of these actors are fairly fresh or under used and everyone pulls there weight and then some. Michael Stuhlbarg’s turn as Larry is comic genius at times and all at once sad as he struggles with righting his life as it slowly unravels around him. Richard Kind nails every moment he gets on screen as the socially inept and odd Arthur that is living in with the Gopnik’s. Fred Melamed is also hilarious as Sy Albeman who is built up so wonderfully and Melamed lives up to the expectations of the character and makes him even funnier that we anticipate. The rest of the cast shines just as bright as these three as I mentioned earlier and this is vital to keeping us in the world of this film as it will take you up, down, and back around again.
Mining for themes in the film is also quite the task as there are so many layered on top of one another that you can keep pulling back ideas and meanings behind what this all means. A dark comedy on the surface, followed by a tale of Judaism in the 60’s, mid-life crisis, coming of age, the karma of cause and effect, defending family, ending marriage, being smote by the almighty, dental mysteries, ethics of education, this is just breaking the surface; and there is plenty more to find. The density of the film is unrivaled in most films today with so much swimming below the surface that you could get lost for days trying to figure it all out. And with that said, the film DEMANDS a second viewing (which I have sadly not had yet) as you can just tell it will open up the world even further with a second run through.
In the end, A Serious Man is one of the most unique and thought provoking films your will find in quite sometime; and it just so happens that the film is also quite funny as well. The Coen brothers continue to show that they are getting back into their A game and this will hopefully be just another step in a long line of original films by them for years to come. I can absolutely not wait to see it again to not only pick up on the subtext but just to get lost in this insane little world that the Coen’s have created and revel in the brilliant dark humor that is rarely found in today’s film landscape.
A Serious Man is an A-
(Oh, and Kudos to Roger Deakins who continues to be THE MAN!)