Movie Review: A Serious Man

By Matthew Huntley

October 19, 2009

Inside this envelope is...why are you using an envelope, anyway? Who mails things?

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There's something oddly fascinating about the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. It's been three days since I saw it and I still can't figure out why I liked it so much or why I continue to think about it. Sure, it's good for all the usual reasons — it tells an unconventional story; it's funny; it's got a lot of emotion; it contains strong performances. But what elevates it beyond the usual realm of praise is its frank morality, which has a disturbing and profound effect.

It opens with a quote from Rashi, the French Bible scholar known for his brevity: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." By the end, it's obvious what this means (the Coen Brothers aren't trying to be subtle, only mysterious), but that doesn't make it any less eerie. As outrageous and comical as the Coens often are, I believe their intention with A Serious Man was to make a straight-up parable. And because it's so direct, it's perhaps more merciless and uncompromising than something more intricate might have been.

The film centers on the descending life of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish college professor stuck between suburban mundanity and mid-life crisis. Nearly everything in Larry's life has entered a downward spiral. His son (Aaron Wolff) is preparing for his bar mitzvah, but he's more concerned with marijuana and paying off a 20-dollar debt to the bigger kid at school who supplied him the drugs. Larry's daughter (Jessica McManus) is completely self-centered and supposedly steals from her parents. She's at that age when washing your hair means everything.

Larry's wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), thinks it's time they start talking about a divorce. She's fallen for their widowed neighbor, Sy (Fred Melamed), who wants to deal with the situation in the best possible way, and the proper Jewish way, which means having a get (the Jewish ritual for divorce). When his wife kicks him out of the house, Larry starts living at the Jolly Roger Hotel with his brother Arthur (Richard Kind), who has his own secret problem. On top of this, one of Larry's students attempts to bribe him with money for a passing grade on the midterm. Larry isn't sure he'll take it.


Poor Larry has certainly seen better days and it would have been really easy for the Coen Brothers to make this a traditional comeback story about this sad, sympathetic man, but the Coens are too smart for that. They know we've seen that story before ("American Beauty"), which is why they're more interested in Larry's reactions to his troubles rather than his overcoming them. This is a story about one man's search for answers; it's not the story of how he finds them.

What's intriguing is how the film is always on the verge of meeting our expectations but ultimately defies them. We always think we know where it's going but the Coens deliberately take a different approach to familiar material to make it fresh. Consider the scene when Larry is up on his roof contemplating. He gazes across his redundant neighborhood, including over at his prejudiced neighbor's sectioned off lawn that cuts very close to Larry's property. Larry eventually spots his sexy neighbor (Amy Landecker) sunbathing naked on her lawn. The way this scene is shot, we might expect two different things to happen: 1) the neighbor catches Larry and he has to look away like he didn't see anything; 2) Larry tries to get a better view and falls off the roof. What does happen, I'll not reveal, but it's more much interesting than the two possibilities I just listed.

A Serious Man eventually builds to a tension-filled ending that still gives me goose bumps. And yet, on the surface, it's such a simple film with a simple message. But I found its impact immeasurable. The Coen Brothers reiterate that it's our basic principles and values that change our lives the most. Stuhlbarg's straight, unaffected performance allows us to really sympathize with Larry and we hope he has the strength to bear his bad luck just a little longer. In a way, his struggles become our own because we're always demanding an explanation for why things happen to him. It's hard for us to accept answers aren't always available. But we keep striving for them anyway and sometimes go back on moral instincts just to make things easier. That's a dark side of human nature the Coens explore and it's haunting.

After the film, the woman sitting next to me asked if I was familiar with the Book of Job. Once I researched it, I can see why she asked. A Serious Man has many parallels to it and it's likely the Coen Brothers, like Rashi, wanted to paraphrase the Bible so we could understand it better. Whether you're religious or not, this film is a testament to stay true to yourself and not be tempted by the easy way out. That's a simple and common message, yes, but it's incredibly useful and impactful, contained in a film of pure grandness.



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