A film review by Craig J. Koban February 24, 2010
A SERIOUS MAN
2009, R, 104 mins.
2009, R, 104 mins.
Larry: Michael Stuhlbarg / Uncle Arthur: Richard Kind / Sy: Fred Melamed / Judith: Sari Lennick / Divorce lawyer: Adam Arkin / Dybbuk: Fyvush Finkel /
In English with occasional Yiddish and Hebrew.
The opening scene of the Coen Brothers' A SERIOUS MAN is as audacious as it is brilliant and darkly funny
a prologue – performed completely in Yiddish – that appears to
have zero correlation to the rest of the film that transpires after
it, but inevitably does bare some influence near the end of the overall
It is set a century ago in Poland where an older couple has a brush
with fate. A Jewish man comes home after a very bleak snowstorm and informs
his wife that he has invited an acquaintance of hers home for soup.
Unfortunately, the horrified wife informs her husband that the man
in question has apparently died three years earlier and that, as a result,
the guest must be a dybbuk (or demon).
The guest, of course, heartily laughs off the suggestion, but when
the deeply suspicious wife stabs him in the heart – and he does not die
or experience any outward pain – he leaves the home, heads back out into
the blizzard, and is never heard from again.
The wife rather pitifully concludes that the dybbuk has forever cursed
The film then abruptly fast forwards to the present (its present being 1967 in a very non-specific Midwestern City – possibly the same Minnesota town that the Coens grew up in) where we begin to see the very slow and deliberate dissolve of a deeply trouble Jewish family. The family is headed up by a very anxious, very paranoid, and very rattled physics professor that is trying to eek out a piece of the American dream for himself, only to see it completely unraveling before his eyes.
Coens have never professed to be “personal” filmmakers, and just a
cursory look at their resumes shows their astounding variety and
versatility that seems very far removed from their private lives (NO
COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and BURN
AFTER READING, the pair’s last two films, could not be any
different), but A SERIOUS MAN is clearly an effort on their part to
directly deal with their Jewish upbringing. They lived a middle-class
existence in Minnesota and were the sons of Jewish academics, so it does
not take a serious flight of fancy to see that A SERIOUS MAN is a personal
film. As a result, what
emerges is arguably one of their most thoughtful dramedies: It revels in
their impeccable attention to the filmmaking craft, not to
mention that it thoroughly captures their offbeat predilection towards
bleak, nihilistic humor that stings with a deeply subversive bit.
Beyond that, the film frames its oftentimes-acidic laughs with a
touching commentary on the nature of morality, faith, and how difficult it
is for some to cling to those values during times when personal calamities
begin to suffocate you. Part
of the genius of A SERIOUS MAN is that it takes a late-1960’s Jewish
family, presents them at their most ordinary and prosaic, and nonetheless
makes them feel eccentrically off-kilter and colorful.
Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, previously an unknown stage actor, and a
remarkably assured film actor here) is finding his cozy lifestyle falling
into a bottomless abyss by a series of personal problems that seem to be
happening to him without provocation. He’s sees himself as a decent, intelligent, and
“serious” academic and family man, but there are forces at play in
both his day job and home life that are wreaking havoc over him.
He is up for tenure at his University, but someone has been
submitting negative letters to the committee in an effort to discredit
him. The Columbia Record Club
continually calls him at his office to look into why he has not paid them
in months. Larry also has
recently been the target of an Asian student that is unhappy that he
received an F on his last test, not because he failed at every
mathematical question, but because he needs a better grade to continue on
with his scholarship. When
the discouraged student leaves the professor's office Larry finds an envelope full
of money in what appears to be an attempted bribe.
there, it gets bleaker. Larry's home life is a sham of biblical proportions:
His son, Danny (a very funny and dry Aaron Wolff) is days away from his
bar mitzvah, but seems only interested in F-troop, the family’s TV
reception, listening to rock music in Hebrew school, and smoking pot.
Larry’s daughter, Sarah (Jessica Mcmanus) is a selfish and conceited
brat that is only interested in getting a nose job.
Larry’s brother, Arthur (a delightfully kooky Richard Kind) is
unemployed, homeless, and has been crashing at Larry’s home for a while.
He also has to drain his massive cyst on his back on a regular
basis, much to the chagrin of his niece and nephew.
Oh…and he also likes to hang out a seedy bars, has a chronic
gambling addiction, and is working on a probability map of the universe.
Yes…it gets worse. Larry’s is perpetually frightened by his trailer trashy, gun lovin’ neighbour and thinks he is a vengeful Jew hater. Beyond that, his marriage has hit a total dead end when his wife, Judith (a sharp tongued Sari Lennick) has rather nonchalantly revealed to him that she is leaving him for another man that Larry thinks is a soft-spoken reptile of a adulterer, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed, harnessing an infuriatingly mannered and calm spoken intonation that instantly makes your skin crawl). Larry is then kicked out of the house and is forced to take recluse at a cheap hotel, brother in tow, at the request of both his wife and her new lover (the film’s single funniest line occurs when Ableman reassures Larry that “The Jolly Roger is quite liveable. It’s not expensive and the rooms are eminently habitable”). The only solace in Larry’s increasingly fractured life is the presence of a sultry and seductive neighbour that likes to sunbath in the nude. Larry would definitely like to meet this woman, but does not have the nerve to speak to her.
his unfortunate absence in BURN AFTER READING, Roger Deakins has rejoined
the Coens as their resident cinematographer for A SERIOUS MAN, and he
gives the late 60’s Midwestern suburbs an artful eye for detail and
mood (the setting is a very important secondary character in the film, so attention to it
was a must). Beyond
the solid production values and fluid camera work, A SERIOUS MAN further
embellishes the Coens as maestros of grim and depressing comedy: just when
you think that they place nice with the material, they hoodwink you with
their devilish flourishes. There
are many individual moments that are small comic gems: There are
multiple dream sequences that typify Larry’s demoralized and agitated
mental state; a laugh out loud hilarious scene between Larry and
completely naďve and obnoxiously unaware junior rabbi; another scene involving a fairly senile and much older rabbi that speaks less from
the Good Book and more from the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane; and lastly
another moment involving a different rabbi that begins uproariously (watch
how the Coens can make a modest gesture like stirring tea reflect ethereal
pathos) and goes on to be a small scale comic masterpiece in its own
right. The rabbi tells an
evocative and richly funny tale of a dentist that finds the Hebrew letters
inside a patient’s teeth. After
the rabbi elaborately sets up the story and offers no payoff, the fixated
and frustrated Larry pleads with to let him know what advice he gave the
dentist. The rabbi dryly responds, “Is it…relevant?”
Larry, of course, demands answers, to which the rabbi modestly
replies, “Hasham does not owe us answers or anything else.”
A deeply exasperated Larry retorts, "Why does he make us feel the
questions if he’s not gonna answer them, “ to which the Rabbi replies,
“Oh. He hasn’t told
What’s compelling about A SERIOUS MAN is how well it also manages to convey its deeper religious and philosophical underpinnings alongside its insidiously funny material. At its core, the film tackles conundrums that are endlessly absorbing, if not a bit pessimistic. Larry is a good soul, for the most part, and is deeply troubled by his own inability to find spiritual guidance – or answers – for all of his troubles. Yet, for as proper as he tries to live his life and for as serious as he thinks he is, it seems like God is mocking him. Are the problems that permeate Larry’s life purely events that have all gathered at the same inopportune time or are they somehow the product of his complete inability to deal with them? Is there, to mix religious subtexts a bit, some bad karma in his life? One of the film’s closing moments seems to think so, which shows Larry making one deeply unethical choice and then immediately afterwards he receives a phone call with some ghastly news. At this point viewers will begin to reflect on the seemingly unrelated prologue a bit more, which emerges at this point to be more germane to the arc of Larry’s character: Were the Yiddish speaking personas that alienated the dybbuk actually ancestors of Larry that have cursed not only their lives, but their future lineage as well? Or…are all of the nasty incidents in Larry’s life just a cruel series of coincidences? You can feel the Coens taking great pleasure in not telling us.
Unfortunately, this leads me to the film’s one overriding fault that excludes it from being a complete masterstroke work: The film’s very last scene and shot is abrupt to the point of inciting viewers to shake their heads and throw things at the screen. Normally, I dislike tidy, audience-pandering conclusions, but the very stark lack of an ending troubled me more than it challenged me, holding me back at a distance from what preceded it. A SERIOUS MAN had the perfect ending with Larry’s final act and the phone call that followed it, which would have emerged as a hauntingly ambiguous and perversely funny wrap-up . It not only served as the perfect bookend to the wonderful prologue, but it also reflected on the dicey spiritual unrest that the main character struggles with as well as ultimately speaking towards the thematic pendulum that the Coens titillate us with (are we the victims of larger-than-life omnipotent deities or, rather bluntly, are we all just screwed regardless of our choice of actions?). A SERIOUS MAN may have imploded in his final minutes, but there is no denying that everything leading up to that point is one of the Coens' most innovative, richly droll, enthusiastically oddball, and engrossing black comedies in years. Through it all, you can feel their daring hutzpah with both respecting and skewering their personal subjects, a dichotomy that is deceptively hard to pull off.