Film review – A Serious Man (2009)

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg)

For 25 years now Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading) have been making stylish and meticulously constructed films that reveal their deep love and knowledge of cinema. Frequently working in the screwball comedy and film noir genres, the Coen brothers have made films that toyed with generic conventions and delightfully undermined audience expectations. Occasionally they make radically non-genre films such as their 1991 masterpiece Barton Fink, which still stands as their most personal and expressive film. Not only does Barton Fink contain the Coen brothers’ dark and absurd sense of humour and existential view of the universe but it also touches on their Jewish identity. Now comes A Serious Man, which is very much one of the Coen brothers’ more left-of-field personal projects and it contains the most thorough examination of their Jewish background to date.

Set in a suburb in the American Mid West in 1967, A Serious Man depicts a world that on the surface appears to be one of complete ordinariness.  In the centre of this world is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) a college professor whose son is preparing for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. Despite not having actually done anything to cause any ripples in the universe, Larry’s entire life soon begins to tumble around him. His wife asks for a divorce, his professional integrity is challenged and his troubled brother appears even more troubled than originally suspected. Larry turns to a series of rabbis for moral and spiritual advice on how to get over these calamities and live his life as a good and serious man.

Larry and Judith Gopnik (Sari Lennick)

As you would expect from a Coen brother’s film every single aspect contained within A Serious Man is deliberate and carefully compiled. The shots are composed perfectly and not since Punch-Drunk Love has music been used so effectively to give such incredible tension to what appears on screen to be mundane interactions. A Serious Man is a film that will get under your skin unexpectedly and stay in your mind long after its astonishing final shot abruptly cuts to the end credits. Somewhere in this puzzle of a film is a parable about perception, meaninglessness, moral accountability, faith, coping with what life throws at you and Jefferson Airplane lyrics. It is a film to be intuitively understood on an almost gut level and discussing it at length later to unravel its nuances is part of the pleasure of seeing such a film. A Serious Man is a rich, darkly humorous and spellbinding addition to the incredible contribution that Joel and Ethan Coen have made to contemporary cinema.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. I’m sorry, but I can not disagree more with you on this film. The ‘puzzle’ you reference is the Book of Job. That’s what the whole movie is; a retelling of the story of Job, except that Larry gives into temptation rather than keeping his faith.

    I was bored to tears watching A Serious Man. I can see how someone who makes films or went to film school might like picking apart all the elements of this film, but to your average audience member, there isn’t a lot to like. The characters are unlikable and boring. The story drags along at a terrible pace. There is so much repetition among the scenes that one scene blurs into the next and the movie seems to drag on for an eternity.

    The Coen brothers may excel at some of the technical aspects of film making, but they failed to create or tell a good story with this one.

  2. Hi Brian

    Thanks for your comments and it is interesting to hear an alternative point of view about this film. The Book of Job is, of course, a major influence in A Serious Man but the film is very loosely based on the the Book on Job in much the same way that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is only very loosely based on The Odyssey.

    I wasn’t bored at all and I really enjoyed the pace of this film. I found it to be an all consuming experience where the storytelling aspect was of secondary importance to the film’s overall impact. I guess I like that sort of thing while others don’t. I don’t like second guessing what an ‘average audience member’ might like or dislike and I don’t like making assumptions about the tastes of others – I’m just calling it as I see fit.


  3. Well, personal preference is always a factor. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this is a bad movie, it’s not, but it’s definitely not to my taste.

    I wonder, if I had more personal experience in the subject matter, would the film mean a lot more to me. I know it’s not the same type of film, but I did thoroughly enjoy Raising Arizona, and I have much more personal experience with, shall we say, people who prefer to live in trailers. I just wasn’t able to empathize with Larry at all.

    I do, however, feel that the Coen brothers films seem to be drifting more and more toward a smaller and smaller audience. Preaching to the choir, so to speak. I know that their fanbase loves their films and loves to go over and over them, but the seem to be increasingly inaccessible to audiences as a whole. That’s where I think the fail to tell a good story.

    Anyway, like I said, I don’t think it’s a bad movie, but definitely not my kind of movie. I just wish the Coen brothers would make more movies that are accessible to a wider audience so I can enjoy their talent more often.

  4. I’m willing to concede that A Serious Man is going to have a more specialised audience than other Coen brothers films but I thought No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading were very accessible. I never saw The Ladykillers but before that was Intolerable Cruelty, which was a very commercially geared film. I think the Coens are actually quite diverse and tend to alternate between projects with a broader appeal and their more personal projects, such as Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There and now A Serious Man.

    However, all that is besides the point – the Coens should be allowed to make whatever films they want to make especially when they have already proven themselves to be extremely accomplished filmmakers. If they want to make a film for a more film literate audience, who do appreciate what they do, then why should they not be allowed to do so? Why should audiences who are able to appreciate such films be denied? Audiences wanting less challenging material have plenty of other films to pick from so I don’t see why the Coens should have to compromise what they do.

  5. “The shots are composed perfectly and not since Punch-Drunk Love has music been used so effectively to give such incredible tension to what appears on screen to be mundane interactions”

    Totally agree. Excellent review.

  6. I agree. The Coen brothers should be allowed to make whatever movies they want. My point is that better film makers would be able to make that movie AND have it be accessible to a larger audience. Sure, not everyone would get the full meaning of such a movie, but more people would be able to enjoy it. I would also like to watch one of their movies, not like it, and not be accused of being less than literate.

    This seems to be a growing problem with each of their movies. Their fans are becoming more and more arrogant, believing that, if they like, or say that they like, the movie, it must mean that they are more intelligent than those who did not like the movie. Intelligence and taste have nothing to do with each other. I’m not attempting to oppress the Coen brothers or force them to make typical, Hollywood pablum, but I do feel that they are becoming less and less relevant to anyone who is not a devotee of their work. I also feel that they are sacrificing the basics of movie making and story telling to please this small, rabid fan base.

  7. Hi Brian

    I’m sorry if I’ve offended but I think you’ve misunderstood me. In your original comment you wrote:

    I can see how someone who makes films or went to film school might like picking apart all the elements of this film.

    The type of people you describe is what is often called a film literate audience so when I said that the Coens on occasion arguably makes films targeted at “a more film literate audience” that was not a suggestion that you are less than literate.

    In fact, we are saying the same thing: this is a film that will appeal to a specialised audience. I don’t have a problem with that but you do. I liked this film for what it is and you don’t. That’s all it really comes down to.

    I still maintain that the Coens make only a handful of these more niche personal films and I still maintain that we shouldn’t make generalisations about audiences, especially insulting generalisations.

    Finally, there’s no point getting this angry over the fact that other people like a film that you don’t so it’s time to please end this and move on.


    PS I checked out your blog Ciné Critique Américain and noted that you are a massive fan of Casablanca so I know we won’t always disagree!

  8. Lovely review of a great film.

    (And it’s nice to see a civilised exchange of views on the comments, even when the participants have strongly opposed opinions.)

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