REVIEW: A Serious Man

27 11 2009

The Coen Brothers have been entertaining audiences with their off-beat filmmaking techniques for many years now.  In “A Serious Man,” their artistry shines bright as they lead you through a miserable string of luck in the life of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg).  It is easy to get lost in their style while they present these events that are undeniably captivating.  Knowing that they are Oscar-winning directors and screenwriters lends a sense of confidence that they know what they are doing.  But when the dust settles and the film cuts to black, I couldn’t help but sigh, “Huh?” with a great deal of dissatisfaction.

As I walked out of the theater, the worst feeling was looming over me – not only did I not know what the filmmakers wanted me to take from the movie, I had absolutely no idea what I had just watched other than a life being ripped apart at the seams.  This is tough for anyone to feel, but I am a critic of sorts.  I couldn’t help trembling at what my readers would think if I couldn’t understand it.  “What a philistine, that Marshall, can’t even appreciate simple art,” I thought you might say.

But I’m going to imagine this as “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” because I used lifelines so I could report to you something other than my confusion.  With the help of Google and a friend’s mother, I was able to decode some of the movie.

“A Serious Man” is, in essence, a study in decomposition.  The object rotting is Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor in Minnesota, who seems to be an upright man when we first meet him.  He hasn’t wronged anyone.  He has stayed true to his faith, raised a decent family, and earned the esteem of his peers where he teaches.  But for some reason, he becomes proof of Murphy’s Law that states: “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”  Problems sprout in his marriage, with his children, with his brother, with his neighbors, and at his job.  These troubles in turn drive him fiscally and spiritually bankrupt.  So what do the Coen Brothers want us to learn from watching one man go through hell?

They leave us two clues.  One lies in a religious text, the other in a ’60s pop song.

  1. The story of Job. In both the Torah and the Christian Bible, Job is a god-fearing man.  All of a sudden, for no apparent reason, bad things just start happening to him.  According to a friend’s mom, it is about questioning your faith in God while knowing that he is there and accepting that stuff happens.  The main question it hopes to raises is why bad things happen to good people.  Ultimately, Job’s toil is rewarded with blessings by God, restoring what he had lost twofold.
  2. Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”.  In the movie, the song is featured prominently in various places, played at the beginning and the end of the main narrative.  The lyrics say:

When the truth is found to be lies,
And all the joy within you dies,
Don’t you want somebody to love,
Don’t you need somebody to love,
Wouldn’t you love somebody to love,
You’d better find somebody to love.

Both can clearly relate to Larry’s predicament, but the overall message is still somewhat nebulous.  Do the Coens want us to believe that God is an uncaring figure who will not only let bad things happen to good people but also scorn those who ask with sincerity for Him to wrap His loving arms around them?  The brothers were raised Jewish but admit to not being terribly devout, so this doesn’t seem to be too improbable of a conclusion.  But I think the most likely explanation is that there isn’t one.  The Coen Brothers’ intelligence has earned them the privilege to do a lot of things, but they have the common sense to know that they cannot put words in God’s mouth.  By simply raising the question, they give us the answer: there really isn’t one.  They don’t tell us what we should do to keep bad things from happening, but they do show us how we can bring them on ourselves.

So with a little reflection, “A Serious Man” has turned from an unrewarding enigma to a perplexing rumination on a question that has baffled mankind for millennia.  Aesthetically and morally, it is one of the Coens’ finest.  Content wise, it is not.  Larry is the only character they really nail; all others just seem strangely out of place and undeveloped.  However, it does succeed in getting you to really think about what is outside the frame and puzzle out your own beliefs.  As a filmmaker, what could be better than that?  B- /



3 responses

27 11 2009

I actually loved this movie a lot, mostly for the way nobody really seems to be able to provide Larry any answers. I mean there’s something pretty darkly humouros about a man surrounded this much absurdity , and unable to get any solace beyond a shrug and a “shit happens”.

It’s definitley Vintage Coens…and back to being weird for the sake of weird.

15 01 2013

I do indeed like the way you write your way into this review, careful at first as though it’s necessary, almost required to acknowledge the accomplishments of these master filmmakers, followed inevitably by your own uncertainties and misgivings. I must agree with you here, on this oddity of a film, perhaps too much effort and not enough confidence to let it become more than merely an accounting, more than just so quiet, so clinical. I can’t help but think of Malick’s Tree of Life, the absurdity, the free flowing oddity, the lasting ghosts asking me the same question over and over…but then what? Thanks for the willingness to dig in and figure it out, to inspire us all to look a little closer and ask ourselves to think about the movies in our lives.

16 01 2013

I’ve definitely come to appreciate this movie more over the past 3 years or so, though it definitely has some major flaws. And I think the ending of the movie feels all wrong, mainly because it seems to be advocating something entirely different than what the rest of the movie says. But who really knows?

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