Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Serious Man

Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

I like the Coen Brothers pretty much without exception. Note the words “pretty much” in that first sentence. Admittedly, I haven’t seen all of the Coen films, although I am in double digits with their filmography, and I’ve liked or loved all of them. Until now. There’s something about A Serious Man that simply rubs me the wrong way. I realize that I’m in the minority on this—there are a number of people who consider this one of their best if not their absolute best. For me, who has seen 10 of their 16 films, A Serious Man comes firmly in 10th place.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a pretty ordinary guy on the surface, but a seething cauldron of angst underneath. His marriage is falling apart, his kids have no respect for him, his application for tenure is under review and not looking good, a student tries to bribe him, his brother sleeps on his couch, and his neighbor is constantly encroaching on his lawn. Everything starts to fall apart at exactly the same time.

Among the things that are falling apart is his marriage. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) suddenly comes to him demanding a get, a traditional divorce, so that she can marry Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). As discussions concerning the divorce continue, it becomes clear that both Judith and Sy blame Larry for everything wrong with the marriage and expect him to pay for everything. They also expect him to move out of the house rather than have Judith move in with Sy.

Actually, there’s too much to really go into here. Suffice to say that in virtually every place possible, nothing goes right for Larry. There’s plenty of possibility for dark comedy here, and a great deal of that dark comedy comes through. The problem I have with it is that it all seems so mean spirited. Sure, there are times when it feels like the entire world is coming down on our heads, but here, it really is, and it’s all selfish. Larry seems to be the only person in the entire film who isn’t completely focused on himself entirely. Again, I get that this may well be the way we perceive things sometimes.

I’m babbling a bit. Let me try to rein that in.

This really is what it comes down to--A Serious Man contains a lot of potential for humor and some actual humor, but the comedy it has is specifically mean. There’s no joy in this; we laugh at moments (although I managed to get through the whole thing without cracking much of a smile) without sympathy and specifically out of a sense of cruelty. I found it terribly difficult to watch because it is so desperately mean.

This saddens me because I am such a fan of the Coens and their films. I fully expected to like this because I’ve liked, loved, or completely fallen for the previous nine of their films that I’ve seen. I can’t pick a favorite right now because I can argue for four or five of them in that position.

Even the dream moments, which are slotted in carefully to look like they are actual reality and are revealed as dreams only when Larry wakes up in a cold sweat, contain the same sort of malicious humor as the rest of the film. The film ends on a malicious note as well, adding a destructive and vicious coda to what has already been a film filled with existential angst.

It’s a shame, because the theme of the film is one I should like. For those of a certain mindset, it could be argued that A Serious Man tells the story of what happens when someone turns away from religion, tradition, and spirituality. On the other hand (and my preferred reading), this is the story of the pointlessness of religious belief, since what happens will happen regardless of our faith. The ineffectiveness of the three rabbis seems to me to indicate that this is the meaning intended.

And so, ultimately, A Serious Man is a film I found seriously flawed. I expected better from the Coen Brothers.

Why to watch A Serious Man: It’s a Coen Brothers film.
Why not to watch: It’s mean.


  1. Like you, I am a big fan of the Coens. I bought A Serious Man when it came out because I own the Coens on DVD and that was the latest one. There it sat for months, though, unwatched. I finally did see it and wasn't that thrilled with it, either.

    Looking through their filmography, among their last 7 films the only one I've really liked was True Grit.

    Leaving aside polarizing films like No Country for Old Men, I think the general consensus is that their films Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, and Burn After Reading would rate as their worst films. All three are broader attempts at humor, but all seem to fall flat in one way or another.

    1. As it happens, the three you mention after No Country are three of the six I haven't seen. We've discussed before our differences on No Country for Old Men, which I think is their best drama and possibly their best film.

      We're in the minority on A Serious Man, incidentally. Just thought you should know.

    2. What are the other three you haven't seen? I assume the newest - Inside Llewyn Davis - is one.

      And for what it's worth, Burn After Reading has some fans, so even if you choose not to be a completist with the Coens you may want to give this one a try.

    3. I haven't seen Inside Llewyn Davis, The Man Who Wasn't There and Barton Fink. It's entirely possible that I will add a feature for the second half of the year and watch one per month just to finish them off.

      I own a copy of Burn After Reading I bought when Blockbuster was going under. I just haven't gotten around to it.

    4. Of those other three I would rank them The Man Who Wasn't There, then Barton Fink, then Inside Llewyn Davis.

      The Man Who Wasn't There is definitely recommended. It's not as good as some others, but Billy Bob Thornton gives a good performance as perhaps the most unflappable character ever put on film. Scarlett Johannson does a good job in an early-in-her-career small supporting role. It was the same year as Ghost World - the first film I ever saw her in - and two years before the 1-2 punch of Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring.

      Barton Fink is either the first or second Coen film I ever saw. I describe it as "for the first one hour and ten minutes things move very slowly then something happens and the movie gets very interesting." John Goodman steals most scenes he's in and there's one that is indelibly etched in my brain that I wish I could describe the awesomeness of, but it would be a spoiler. This film does require patience. And fans of Se7en are sometimes dismayed to find out that one of the most famous plot points in that 1995 film was directly stolen from this 1991 film.

      Inside Llewyn Davis was just okay for me. I felt the Coens were trying to recapture the magic of O Brother Where Art Thou but with early 1960s folk music instead of early 1930s bluegrass. It ended up missing something. I don't know whether it was that the lead character just couldn't carry the film or that the more well known folks in the film felt underused. It's not an "avoid" by any means.

    5. I'm enough of a Coen fan that I'll see them all eventually. Too many lists, man. Too many lists.