A Serious Man

There are generally two types of Coen brothers film. On the one hand you have your comedies. They are extremely dark in tone and humour, but are still comedies none the less.Raising Arizona,Intolerable Cruelty andO’ Brother Where art Thou? are perfect examples. Then you have your more serious type of Coen Brothers film. Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men and The Man Who Wasn’t There. A Serious Man is smack bang in the middle of these two styles. It is humourous, without being too funny, it is serious, without being depressing, and it might well be my new favourite Coen Brothers film.

The film centres around Larry Gopnik, played by Michael Sthulberg, who is going through some what of a mid-life crisis. The film begins with him getting a medical. His son is in trouble for listening to rock music. His wife asks for a divorce because she is involved with another man, even though there is no “whoopsy doopsy” involved. All of this taking place in the first 10 mintues of the film. What follows is his journey to find his place in life and his attempts to be closer to his family even though his wife is pushing him further and further away. He has to deal with his childlike older brother, problems with his job, his lust for his next door neighbour and his distant children. Not too mention his money problems due to his impending divorce. This is Larry’s test.

I know I am a bit late in writing about A Serious Man – I just never got around to seeing it as I live in Watford and they don’t tend to show many art films (though they are still showing Alvin and the Chipmunks 2, I kid you not!) – but I am glad I finally caught it as I thought it was brilliant. I just loved everything about it. The direction, the writing, the acting, the production design, the music,…absolutely everything. All the elements that make the Coen brothers modern great auteurs were present. For example, the seemingly normal characters with abnormal undertones, or odd characters and plain strange incidents. And just like most Coen Brothers films, people talk a great deal, but no one really listens.

On the surface, A Serious Man is a film about faith as we follow Larry through the film whilst he feels like he is being tested. He tries to talking to Rabbis for advice but they are no help. Larry is losing his faith just as his son is about to get his. Larry is a strange mix by being deeply religious but a man of science at the same. When we first see Larry teach, he is describing Schrödinger’s 1935 hypothetical experiment that consisted of a cat in a sealed box with a vial of poison that could break at any random time. Until the box was opened, since no one knew whether or not the poison had been released, the cat was considered both dead and alive at the same time. This is how we feel about Larry. He is alive, yet he is dead. He cannot find his faith. His family treat him as if he isn’t there even though he wants to be and no one is taking him seriously. As Larry gets his life back together again, you feel he might have finally found the right path. It appears as if his wife will take him back, his son has been confirmed and his job is safe. Unfortunately for Larry, in his fails final, and probably fatal, test he caves in to monetary pressures and decides to take a bribe. At this precise moment, the phone rings. It’s his doctor. He wants him to come in right away. What will happen? Like Larry, we don’t know. Like Schrödinger’s cat, he is both dead and yet very much alive at the same time. One thing we do know however, is that a storm is coming.



Every shot in the film feels like it has a purpose and some resonance behind it. Even though the film is slow and well crafted, there is never a point where you feel bored or like you want to do anything other than stare at the screen to see what is coming next. Every camera angle intrigues you. Whether it be a blurred haze of pot smokers, or the slow crafted long shot looking into the head Rabbi’s office.

We are purposely not told what year the film is set in, but it is comfortable middle America where most of the Coen Brothers work take place. Similarly to Fargo, or The Man Who Wasn’t There, we are presented with the typical white picket fence houses and blue skies, but deep down all is not well in most peoples lives. In the surreal nature of A Serious Man, dreams are blurred with reality. Whether it be conversations with Koreans, his sexy lone neighbour to his left or Rabbi’s reciting Jefferson Airplane, there is something going on beneath the façade of humility.

Michael Sthulberg is excellent as Larry Gopnik. He is indeed the serious man while everyone around him appears to be losing their cool or appear to be slightly off key. It is heart breaking to him constantly try and do the right thing. You really feel his pain as he tries to do what’s best, but much to the credit of Michael Sthulberg, it can be infuriating watching him do so. You just want to scream at the screen “STOP! STOP IT! YOU DON’T HAVE TO PAY FOR YOUR WIFE’S NEW LOVER’S FUNERAL! YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE SO NICE ALL THE TIME!”

There were some great performances from the supporting cast. Larry’s brother, Arthur, is a loveable but flawed buffoon. The kids are believable. ‘Curse bus boy’ had me in fits everytime he was on the screen and his son, who is his parallel in the film, does a good job at being spoilt and cares about nothing except weed, TV and music. But it is Fred Melamed who excels as the new love of Larry’s wife, Sy Abelman. Melamed exudes charm, authority and at times sleaziness. He doesn’t even need to be on screen to cast a presence. Even when we only hear him on the phone it is still a joy.

While A Serious Man might not please everyone with it’s surreal nature and quirky characters, not to mention the outright Jewish-ness of the film, I found it a joy reveling in the downright oddities of the film. It is brilliantly crafted, looks great, is perfectly edited and has a great soundtrack and score. Do not be blindly by it’s overt religious nature, as this is a story for everybody, and it asks everyone who watches “How will you deal with your own crisis?” and “How will you cope if you feel you are being tested?”. When that time comes it will ultimately be up to us, but for now, I’ll happily watch Larry Gopnik go through his. As happy as you can be about that sort of thing, of course.

Categories: Film, Reviews


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