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.