A Serious Man review by Tom Blain
I dont spend as much time at the theatres as I used to, but one thing is for sure; if its a toss up between two movies and one is directed by the Coens I would usually give the Coens the nod. A bump. A plus one. Because even their less acclaimed movies usually have some dark humor, great cinematography, catchy rhythmic dialogue, or maybe some quirkily symbolic moments that leave me feeling slightly more literary savvy when I finally make the connection. However, on a recent fateful night when I trumped my wifes request to see another movie with A Serious Man I was met with all of these delightful Coen clichs.however I was also faced with a movie that forces the audience to sit through thousands of years of pain and suffering. In short, I lost my movie trump card.
The movie centers on a Jewish family man Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) and the problems he faces in 1967. Before I get into Larrys issues, I should state that his story is prefaced by an old Yiddish tale about a couple (Larrys ancestors perhaps?) who allow a questionable dead spirit into their house. The wife, wanting no part in afterlife shenanigans, stabs the old man/spirit with an ice pick. Post-stabbing she proclaims the family is cursed. It would seem Larry is unwittingly accepting the bill for this cursing in spades. As a physics professor he is under pressure to become tenured but is facing an uphill battle considering the committee to approve him is receiving hate mail targeting him. Meanwhile he is failing a Korean student attempts who stubbornly attempts to pay him off for passing grades. His home life is a chaotic mix of a wife forcing divore, the man his wife is moving on with moving in, two kids fighting, a worthless brother taking up more than his fair share of space, and on top of all that he is getting kicked to the curb (or in this case the Jolly Roger Motel). The dominoes begin to fall one by one (a car accident or two, a few police visits for his brother) and Larrys life starts to fall to pieces.
Over and over, he attempts to turn to his faith and ask his Rabbis for help but is met with parables, metaphors, and stories with no point. No answers to What does God want from him?, What can he do to fix his life?, What is the meaning of all this?, What is Gods plan for me?, Why is it me that is cursed?
Im not a biblical scholar by any means, but I felt some sort of connection here to an Old Testament story. There are a lot of other moments that I felt could have translated into some Old Testament story that is unbeknownst to me: Larry climbs on his roof to adjust the television antenna (climbing the mountain to communicate with God?), his MILFy, eye-shadowed neighbor offers him marijuana (Serpent-like Witch tempting him and offering a potion?), Sy Abelman is the man attempting to move in on his wife ( Sy able man) and his grating wifes name is Judith; no she didnt be-head ole Larrymaybe verbally but not physically.
After giving up the search on the internet I stumbled across David Denbys review of the film, in which he compares Larrys journey to that of Job. My guess is that by now others have made this comparison as well. My internet education on Job summarized him as a just man who was essentially tested by God and Satan to see if he could remain pious in tough times. Everything is taken away from him and he is left to wonder with his friends why?. When he refused to renounce God, God appears and gives everything back to him in abundance.
A good portion of this fits the Coen parable but some parts are troublesome. Obviously, Larry, like Job has lost everything around him and sees no reason for it. He looks for sagely advice, however the Rabbis and his lawyer appear to be stand-ins for Jobs friends; and none of them appear to ask him to renounce God, they just ask for his acceptance of what is happening and for him to move on. Eventually when his son, Danny goes through with his Bar Mitzvah everything falls back into place. He gets his wife/family back, he gets tenured at his job, etc. In the end (and this is the part where I ask you to stop reading if you really dont want to know the how it ends, but keep in mind Im doing you a favor by ruining it because then you wont feel required to see it), however, Larry makes a fatal mistake. His good fortunes turn to mortally bad, the moment he decides to change the failing Korean students grade from F to C- (thereby accepting the bribe). The moment this happens he gets troubling news about his health and a tornado makes its way for his sons Hebrew school.
And that brings me to the most troubling thing about the movie. The Coens ask us to accept this Old Testament story thereby linking the story and everything that happens to Larry to God. A vengeful God, but God nonetheless based on the closing statement and all that is eventually taken from Larry when he does the wrong thing. However, the movie opens with a curse i.e. a pagan belief. And this curse is what we are supposed to believe kicks off everything horrible in Larrys life if we buy into the prelude. It makes answering the question: So what is really going on here and more importantly WHY? A difficult question to answer given the text.
So even with all this great symbolism the audience is asked to sit through a long painful, sadistic, story and accept poor Larrys improbable suffering with really no payoff or catharsis. Everything that happens to Larry, is transitively thrust upon the poor audience with the scenic backdrop of a flat middle class Midwestern ranch-style neighborhood. There is no enjoyment. There isnt much of a message other than, when things are going well, dont screw them up by doing something bad! The comic moments are fairly minimal, and there is a good share of purely annoying characters.
Thank you Coen brothers.
Update: I did manage to find one review that piqued my interest on the movie and did break down some metaphysical theories (Schrodinger's cat) but in the end my stance on the film remains the same. Thank you Cinema Styles for a good read.
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