A Serious Man
Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Writer: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Wagner Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff
I watched this movie at an interesting time in my life. I just wrapped a very personal and meaningful project of mine at my University, a play by Canadian playwright Jason Sherman titled Patience. It told the story of a Jewish man’s fall from grace and his attempt to put his life together again. There were many monologues dealing with life, fate, circumstances, uncertainty, need, and had so many layers to it I still don’t think I’ve gotten to the core. Once it was done, I felt the need to catch up on some films that I missed from 2009. I got my hands on numerous films and spent the last few days watching them. When I started watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s most recent film, A Serious Man, I didn’t realize I’d be revisiting so many themes from that play. But enough about that. This is a review of this film, and while there are many similarities (most notably, both the film and the play mirror the biblical story of Job) I will focus on reviewing the film on its own. I just felt this needed to be said, because I feel it was important to understand my reaction to the film.
The film follows the story of Larry Gopnik, the quintessential family man and physics professor. His life is thrown into turmoil when his wife announces she wants a divorce, and that she has been seeing their family friend Sy Ableman. His son smokes marijuana and his daughter may be stealing from him. His brother is sleeping on their couch and mooching off them. He is up for tenure but is receiving anonymous letters saying his moral figure might be suspect. Basically, his life starts to fall apart. He visits different Rabbis for advice all the while struggling with these things and more.
That’s about all I’m comfortable revealing in terms of plot, but the movie is really about Larry himself more than anything. He is played wonderfully by Michael Stuhlbarg, a relatively unknown actor (he’s done more work in theatre than film), with a quiet sadness that bursts to the surface on a few occasions and is incredibly heartbreaking. The Coen brothers have a near perfect track record in my eyes, and this film seems to me to be their most personal. It is very clearly a ‘labor of love’ as it were, and after making movies for almost 30 years, it’s great to see something like this added to their body of work.
But why is this important? For me, I believe that art should be a reflection on the artist. Like Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York I loved this film not only because it’s clearly the auteur’s most personal work, but because it affected me on a personal level as well. And like that film, this one ended and immediately I wanted to watch it again so I could understand it more. That’s what I want out of my movies, and this one delivered on that. There’s an opening scene entirely in yiddish (with subtitles of course) that confused me to the point that I had to make sure I was watching the right movie. After it was over the movie started proper, but knowing the Coens it must have some meaning attached to it. I tried to piece it together but I am still at a loss as to what it means. Which means I need to watch it again. And again. And even if I never get the answer, the mere fact that it’s opening my mind up and making me ask questions makes me love it.
In true Coen Brothers fashion the film concludes without a clear resolution. Two major plot points occur in the last five minutes and we’re never fully sure what happens. The thing is, I love endings that don’t fully resolve anything. Like life, our only 100% clear conclusion is our death. Everything that happens to that point cannot be known in advance. So when this film, and many others before it, end with a ‘cliffhanger’ as it were, a lot of people are upset because they need closure. But I think the important question to be asked here is not so much, what happens next, but instead, why is what happens next important? Why is this the moment that we are taking out of this imaginary world and thrust back into our own? Self reflection is one of my favorite aspects of any piece of art, and this movie delivered that.
A heartfelt and passionate story along with fantastic performances made this movie one of my favorites of the year. It’s a shame less people will see it because big names aren’t attached to it and there is a lack of robot testicles, but such is the nature of ‘the biz.’ I’m just glad I got to see it.