Originally printed in Mayday Magazine, March 2010
Before I review A Serious Man, I feel that I should disclose two important personal facts. The first is that I’m a huge fan of the Coen brothers. That’s not too extraordinary; it’s hard not to at least respect the Coens for the quality and originality of the bulk of their work. I’ve encountered few people who don’t love at least one of their films. I’d certainly argue they’ve made no less than three modern classics (Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men), and even if they haven’t, their reputation is, at least in my opinion, deserved.
The second is that I’m not Jewish and have had very little interactions with Jewish culture. And while seeing A Serious Man may not necessarily require a working knowledge of contemporary Jewish culture, it certainly helps if you do.
A Serious Man is a dark comedy about the existential crisis of Professor Larry Gopnik (he is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, a veteran stage actor making his first major onscreen appearance). Larry’s wife wants to leave him. His son has started smoking pot. His daughter is apathetic towards him at best. He’s facing a serious moral dilemma at work. When he seeks religious guidance, he winds up with less comfort than he started with. All in all, the early 1970’s are a pretty bad time to be Larry.
And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. The film piles on misery after misery in what should be one of the best weeks of Larry’s life; his son is about to have his Bar Mitzvah and Larry appears to be in good position to gain tenure at his university. From there, however, a number of mild inconveniences escalate and escalate. Some of this might be Larry’s fault, but we’re never given quite enough information to know for sure.
Is a rebellious child the fault of a parent? Is divorce the fault of an emotionally absentee partner? A Serious Man doesn’t show enough for the viewer to move beyond basic assumptions. Then there are events where Larry could not possibly be at fault; these, too, add to his plight. Larry just has a lot of terrible things happen to him with no particular explanation why.
This is a common theme in the Coen’s work, but it’s presented differently here. In their most beloved film, The Big Lebowski, few pleasant things happen to The Dude; yet this never seems too apparent because The Dude and his friends are engaging and likeable characters and the film leans quite heavily on the ridiculous.
While objectively A Serious Man never really stretches plausibility, only a few characters seem truly amiable. Larry, though certainly not a cruel man, is a far cry from the likeable everyman. He has a few scenes where he’s a doormat to a frustrating degree. Still, I found myself growing sympathetic toward his fruitless search and ever-growing list of questions without answers.
That said, I don’t think the film blindsides it’s audience with misery. When you know what sort of darkness to expect, it comes as less of a surprise. I wasn’t taken aback by the degree of suffering Larry endured during the film. At the same time, I was taken aback by the overall tone of the film: A Serious Man never revels in Larry’s pain, it simply presents it. While the Coen brothers have made films that make a few laughs at the expense of it’s characters, I don’t think A Serious Man is one of them.
Ultimately, the Coen brothers have constructed a well-made film. They know their craft, and their writing is generally very sharp and the film is technically very good; they know how to get great performances out of their actors and the film is well-shot and well edited. In particular, the film boasts a very strong performance by Michael Stuhlbarg, who to my surprise actually did not earn a Best Actor nomination for his work.
The question with A Serious Man isn’t “is this good?”, but “is this worth seeing?” That’s a vital distinction to make, and I’m actually not sure what side of the fence I fall on. Philosophically, there’s a fair bit to grapple with. The film’s central question is “why do bad things happen to good people?” and the film never really tries to answer the question. Or rather, if they do, they give such vague responses as “it’s all about perspective” or “just because, and who are we to question it?”.
Perhaps the journey the viewer takes is meant to mirror Larry’s, but ultimately, it’s a film that’s easy to admire but hard to love.