Reviews

A Serious Man

4

Sixties life is rubbish for the Coens’ latest put-upon…

Gentile? Lapsed Jew? Head to tinyurl.com/seriousyiddish before heading to A Serious Man – the Coen brothers’ most personal, challenging and, yes, Jewish film to date.

The link will take you to the film’s official site and a glossary of Yiddish terms that characters spit out with scant regard for goys in the audience. Don’t know what a goy is? Head to tinyurl.com/seriousyiddish.

After the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men and the star-stuffed Burn After Reading, this is the Coen film, you know, for fans. They will lap up the auteurs’ richest movie language since 1990’s Miller’s Crossing, they will feel Barton Fink-goosepimples at the story of one-good-man-against-the-whole-world and all Coenheads will blog about the mysterious shtetl-based (bygone Eastern European Jewish village) prologue with the same reverence afforded to The Dude’s rug. It’s a starless black comedy, a peculiar script in a familiar setting. It’s something the brothers haven’t done for well over a decade.

The story is set in the Minneapolis suburb of St Louis Park in 1967 – a place and time straight out of the creators’ upbringing. The serious man is a good man: Larry Gopnik (the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg), father to highly strung Danny (Aaron Wolff) and mouthy Sarah (Jessica McManus), brother to the useless Arthur (Richard Kind), professor at a local university where a student first tries to bribe him then subsequently sue him and, above all, complacent husband to adulterous wife Judith (Sari Lennick).

He’s in a tailspin. So, feeling a spiritual and personal void he wasn’t previously aware of, Larry heads for God and three different community rabbis of various stature and politeness in order to grasp some crumb of comfort, perhaps word that a blessed afterlife waits for him after his all-of-a-sudden cursed life. “I’ve tried to be a serious man. I’ve tried to do right. Be a member of the community… I need help,” he breaks down. Nice guys finish last.

In other hands, A Serious Man would descend into grim-faced fist-smashing and very possibly a hold-up at a burger bar by a bespectacled former defence worker in a neatly pressed white shirt. Instead though, it rarely – if ever – dips into sentimentality or chaos; its preferred mode is confident black comedy, flaunting the Coens’ familiar tics and quirks.

Thought the painting of the woman at the beach in Barton Fink was incomprehensible? Here the directors throw in lines such as “Without a Gett I’m an Agunah” that will mean nothing to 99.9 percent of viewers as if to say, screw Oscar and cash, this is our world. Join if you want.

But for all the delight of the Coens going back to their roots, A Serious Man frustrates in constantly making light of the personal crises at play. Larry’s predicament is everyday – especially in an age where external (crunch) factors make us passive members of society – but those he meets often push caricature.

Maybe it’s because the directors want you to care about Larry and it’s easier if he’s surrounded by kooks, but by making the rabbis cartoon holy men, the importance of religion is belittled in a film that is, essentially, all about finding some faith. Maybe that’s just how the teenage Coens remember their religious leaders but it’s hard to shake the feeling that if the brothers pushed the cry button more, rather than opting for a quick sight or speech gag, their undoubtedly personal film would have been more memorable. Painful.

But what on earth do we expect from the Coens, directors who have always found connection with audiences despite unparalleled inscrutability, as we leave the decade of their biggest hits? This won’t be one of them – the only recognisable cast member is Kind and that’s mainly because he’s been in Curb Your Enthusiasm – but the skill with which the directors handle Larry’s descent into madness is exemplary.

Take the pacing, which becomes more fraught and frantic as his mind folds in. Or the slow reveal of the professor at the base of a chalkboard full of problems so dense that no mind (save Will Hunting’s) could possibly solve them. Yes, just like Larry’s life.

A Serious Man is a curious film. It’s a niche Coen fan-flick at a time when their star is at its highest and it’s an apparently deeply personal film in which you learn very little about its creators’ childhood. But for two hours there is sufficient mystery and intrigue, more than enough characters to laugh at and a protagonist to love.

You’ll want to come back for more, work out what the prologue means and whether everyone in ’67 Minnesota was smoking grass. And you’ll want that glossary.
 

Verdict:

A complex, non-commercial Coen film that strips back the stars for an absorbing, affectionate look at the Bros’ youth. It keeps much at arm’s length, but with Stuhlbarg holding the disorder in check, A Serious Man will be a serious contender for Coen fan Top Fives.

Film Details

User Reviews

    • Jkaltz11

      Nov 24th 2009, 19:44

      5

      Incredible. The best Coen film.

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    • Jambon

      Dec 11th 2009, 17:22

      1

      Dreadful film. First movie in a long time I've walked out of and I wasn't the only one. Gave it an hour then decided that enough of my time had been wasted. I tried to picture 40 minutes into the future and wondered would I be sitting satisfied by the outcome, perhaps thinking deeper into things or would I be annoyed that I had stayed. And leaving proved to be the best choice. Don't see this as a simple dismissal by somebody who went in expecting something else. I like intelligent films where I don't need to leave my brain at the door. I sighed the loudest when people walked out two minutes into Let the Right One In because it was subtitled and didn't feature R-Patz. This was honestly and frankly a massive disappointment. Don't know where the reviewer spotted the laughs but nobody at the screening I was in noticed them. Curious? Yes but not in a good way. Mystery? How did the Coens convince movie execs to put this out. The sheer dullness of this movie have to be scrubbed out tonight by watching something loud and explosive!!!

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    • Jkaltz11

      Dec 27th 2009, 22:23

      5

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    • Jkaltz11

      Dec 27th 2009, 22:23

      5

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    • Jkaltz11

      Dec 27th 2009, 22:23

      5

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    • beck79

      Jan 19th 2010, 13:46

      2

      I too was really disapointed with this film. I love the Coen brothers' films, some of them are my favourite films, but I just couldn't warm to this at all. Maybe I'm missing something and I hate to say it but I also thought this was bland.

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    • endaoconnor

      Mar 6th 2010, 21:33

      4

      I agree with the review, but I think it deserved 4 stars not 3.

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    • Jkaltz11

      Mar 17th 2010, 18:12

      5

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    • Elliot97

      Dec 21st 2010, 21:06

      1

      Although i love the Cohen Brothers this was just dreadful! If someone asked me what happened in this film i would have to say 'Some bad things happen to some random guy. Then a tornado to make this film less awful!'... Bottom line this was a plot less film! Big step down for the Cohens!

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