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A Serious Man (2009)

  • Review: *** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus, Peter Breitmayer, Brent Braunschweig, David Kang
  • Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
  • Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
  • Length: 106 min.
  • MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.

The Coen Bros. take a step back after their Oscar winning success No Country for Old Men to tackle something less populist and ultimately more interesting before they head back into Oscar territory with their planned re-adaptation of True Grit.

As they have done mostly in the years since winning the Original Screenplay for Fargo back in 1996, the Coens have found inspiration in a previously written work even when their screenplays are considered “original”. A Serious Man is a prime example of this, taking its core concepts from the Bible’s Old Testament book of Job. In that book, Job is a wealthy, prosperous man with a good life, but God decides to test his faith and allow Satan to strip every thing from him.

Here, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor at a local university, has a loving wife and family, but things begin spiraling downward as the film progresses. His wife leaves him to be with another man, his son gets involved in drugs, and his career is threatened when a devious foreign student fails to pass his class and his father seeks to spread scurrilous lies about him, resulting in an investigation by the university administration.

His faith never wavers, but he does seek guidance from rabbis at the synagogue to why all of this is happening to him and what various visions and dreams have meant. He gets circuitous logic and half-answers that ultimately never lead him to understand what’s going on, except to believe that hopefully, one day, his life will return to a bit of normalcy.

While the exact situations aren’t going to be included in an ancient book of writing, the basic premise of the book of Job is in evidence here. Gopnik’s faith is tested and instead of renouncing or blaming God for his plight, he merely questions what he could have done differently or what all of these signs mean. Whether he passes this test of faith or not is resolved in the last act of A Serious Man, but last-minute actions alter the result in a rather interesting and unexpected way.

I’m no fan of the Coens. Their films often leave me irritated or questioning what others see in them as filmmakers. Their style is unmistakable and, as technical filmmakers, they are quite good. Yet, their stories are filled with unlikable characters who they try to infuse with down-home realism, but end up being little more than caricatures of those archetypes. There is no humanity in most of them. Yet, some actors manage to transcend those superficial authenticities: Frances McDormand in Fargo and Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men. But even with those performances, the films in question were not among my favorites.

Although No Country for Old Men is probably my second favorite Coen film, it falls fairly low on my general favorites list. I respect what it had to do and what its message was, but I disliked so many aspects of the film (Javier Bardem for example), but it’s not a film I love. Above No Country is The Man Who Wasn’t There, the only Coens film I love. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s the most mature of their selections and departs fairly heavily from their typical character archetypes.

And now that they’ve won an Oscar I don’t feel they deserved over Paul Thomas Anderson and There Will Be Blood, they’ve put some ointment on that wound with A Serious Man. I rank it far above No Country, but not nearly as high as The Man Who Wasn’t There. They don’t seem to be trying so hard to create down-to-earth realism, which ends up rooting the film more in reality than most of their previous films. Their dialogue doesn’t scream “look at me, I’m writing!” like many of their previous creations, and the characters, though heavily influenced by styles of the 1960s in which the film is set, they are not overzealously groomed and manicured.

Much of that success can be attributed to stage veteran Stuhlbarg whose performance pulls the audience in to his emotional and psychological struggles in a way that gets you rooting for his success, much like Brolin in No Country, yet he’s not surrounded by such aggravatingly evil or overly talkative villains. Even the annoying Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) comes off as modestly endearing (as endearing as an agreeable enemy paramour can be). There really is little basis to detest any of the characters in the film, which is part of why it’s so successful.

A Serious Man, for me, is one of those rare films from a director (or directors) whom I don’t like, that I actually enjoy. It’s a rather refreshing experience and replaces the looming dread I feel every time I sit down to watch such a film. Whether they will continue this trend in the future or return to a loopy realism in future films remains to be seen, but I’ll take another nice respite even if it took the Coens eight years to bring it to me.