Film review – A Serious Man (2009)

21 November 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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