DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2009: A Serious Man

Friday 11 September 2009

TIFF 2009: A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, George Wyner, Richard Kind


Larry Gopnick has lived his life doing everything right, everything he thought he should do to make a living and succeed. It’s the 1960’s and he lives in saccharine suburban Minnesota, with a wife and two kids, a stabile job, decent health and a protective circle of Jewish friends and relatives. And so, when, in a matter of weeks, piece-by-piece, Larry’s life comes crashing down seemingly at random, he’s befuddled and unable cope.

It’s a familiar arena for the Coens, a skewed perspective of everyday life from a humble everyman just trying to get by. Larry Gopnick (played well by newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg) is a hero not unlike Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane character from ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ who just cuts the hair, or the meek and ineffectual Barton Fink – an affable boob who finds himself pushed around without a shred of backbone to enable him to take charge in his life. Depicting Larry as a mathematics professor is the introduction to the overriding theme of action and consequence. Cause and effect is the stuff of math and physics and for Larry every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And so when his wife reveals she’s leaving him, his university job is suddenly in jeopardy, his brother who is found out to be a defiling pederast the equation doesn’t compute.

This is the story of “A Serious Man” a film more in the league of the morose, cynical and very skewed take on suburban life of ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ than the plot driven noir of ‘No Country For Old Men’ or the slapstick farce of ‘Burn After Reading’ and ‘The Big Lebowski’.

With it’s loose plotting, the Coens rely on the episodic and situational absurdities to drive the story. And indeed there are some real zingers. There’s Larry’s obnoxious wife Judith who announces with stone-faced smugness she’s leaving Larry and remarrying his good friend Sy Abelman. There’s his son Danny who is both studying for his Torah reading and dealing pot on the side. There’s a Korean student who tries to bribe Larry into changing his F into an A. There’s his brother Arthur who has to use a suction device to remove the liquid from the boil on his neck daily.

Unfortunately the whole is not equal or greater than the sum of it’s parts. The film suffers most, obviously, from Larry’s inactivity as a protagonist. We don’t need to get out the Syd Field book to recognize that we desperately want Larry to take action, fight back, stand up for himself. The Coens are aware of this and make it part of the story but this acknowledgement does not make it less frustrating.

As well the Coens again refuse to provide us with a real ending, as if their free association of scenes, moments and characters just ran out, and decided to pack it in and call it a day with a cut to black. With the aid of the bookending Jefferson Airplane song it’s made more palatable than the jarring final cut in ‘No Country For Old Men” or sudden ending of “Burn After Reading”, but the film feels no more complete.

‘A Serious Man’ should be savoured for its inspired personal reflections on the Coen’s youthful experiences with Judaism. Laughs are big and small, and most of the time a constant smile on face persisted past its failings but we require more from the brothers and though I wanted to love the film, it has to rank as a disappointment.


Jason said...

You want Larry to take action? Against who, God? Should he go to to Mount Sinai with a bazooka? The problems in Larry's life are more difficult to solve than him just taking action. He's getting a divorce and he might not get tenure. That's what happens in life, there's nothing you can do about it. Larry wants to know why its happening to him and seeks spiritual council. There is no way he can just stand up for himself. And there is a real ending. It ends on the proper note, asking more questions instead of providing tidy answers.

Read my review of A Serious Man at http://cfilmc.com/a-serious-man/

Alan Bacchus said...

hey Jason,
I was a little tough on the film. But without Larry taking action it feels like a 2 hour single act story. When I say take 'action' i don't mean violence, I mean being 'active' as opposed to 'reactive'. As result the film feels like a series of gag, moments, quirky characters of comedic spitballing.
And what was with the opening scene? It wasn't funny, too long, and was completely disposable. If its meant to explain Larry's fate, it didn't work for me.
Oh well, to each his own. There are some really hilarious moments and characters to cherish, which I cited. I will likely be in the minority and there are 4 and 5 star reviews already showing up.


MorrisMinor said...

I want to see this movie. But I was listening to Michael Medved's radio show, you know the so called movie critic who uses reviews to push more con talk radio points. He jokingly said that Coen's adviser on Judaica was Hitler or David Duke. What dreck, did the Coen's have the Jews use baby's blood for matzoh? Well, since Medvet pitches to the same crowd who goes around with Obama = Hitler crowd, one can't expect too much subtlety. What is every movie Jews supposed to be a saint or an death camp survivor?

Carly said...

LOVED this movie! Check out my review at http://carly.onsugar.com/7349805.

I would love for you to follow "Carly's Critiques" at carly.onsugar.com