Reviews

A Serious Man

A Serious Man is sort of a comedy -- of the dangling, irresolute variety Joel and Ethan Coen craft with impeccable wit and off-kilter editing.


A Serious Man

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Adam Arkin, Sari Lennick, Fyvush Finkel, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus
Rated: R
Studio: Focus Features
Year: 2009
UK release date: 2009-11-20 (General release)
US date: 2009-10-02 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

The title A Serious Man nominally refers to Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish physics in '60s Minnesota whose life has begun to crumble around him. His wife announces she's leaving, the tenure committee has received anonymous letters "denigrating [his] character," a student may be attempting to bribe and/or blackmail him; and his kids are carping about the TV reception. As Gopnik suffers through it, he's essentially a passive figure. His struggle is long, but not particularly ennobled.

A Serious Man is sort of a comedy -- of the dangling, irresolute variety Joel and Ethan Coen craft with impeccable wit and off-kilter editing. The brothers grew up Jewish in Minnesota around this time, an experience indicated in that of Larry's son Danny (Aaron Wollf), about to have his bar mitzvah, ducking bullies, experimenting with pot, and signing his hapless father up for the Columbia Record Club, whose harassing phone calls provide yet another burden.

The mundane nature of Larry's pain keeps his Job-like story grounded. The film is often very funny, but never flies off into farce. In filling out Larry's vaguely menacing suburban world, the Coens rely not on the movie stars cast in their recent films, but on actors like Richard Kind, who plays Arthur, Larry's brother with a cyst in constant need of drainage. Some viewers take offense at the film's nebbishy and sometimes grotesque Jewish characters, but this criticism mistakes general misanthropy for anti-Semitism. There are caricatures here, but then, the Coens have long been expert caricaturists, with a variety of targets.

The film is less contemptuous of Jews in particular than faith in general, as a succession of rabbis fails to provide comfort or insight into Larry's plight. A Serious Man alludes to possible meanings in anecdotal side narratives, like the prologue where a Jewish couple encounters what may be a dybbuk, or demon, in the shape of an old friend (Fyvush Finkel), or the rabbinical story of a message found on the back of a dental patient's teeth. But Larry can't get a straight answer out of anyone, not his family, not his rabbi, not his lawyer, and certainly not God.

The Coens delight in this sort of cosmic joke, but their movie, despite the grotesquerie and the dead ends, feels tightly controlled, with Roger Deakins' stark cinematography lighting the suburbs with striking, opaque whites and desaturated colors. They deploy Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" repeatedly and strategically, as an awkward burst of yearning. The madness that eventually breaks out from, say, Barton Fink, vibrates beneath the surface here, contained by the false hope of a higher power who works in mysterious but reasonable ways.

Unfortunately for Larry, his creators have been on a meaninglessness-of-the-universe kick for a while now. The shaggy-dog stories of The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou are refracted through a darker, more foreboding lens resulting in No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and now, A Serious Man. This means another rebuke to conventional closure: A Serious Man arguably resolves even less clearly than No Country. Its haunting final shot makes an unsettling promise: this isn't over, until suddenly it is.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Music

Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.