Review: ‘A Serious Man’

Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg is Larry Gopkin

You know how you feel when everyone is in on the joke but you?  That’s how I felt about A Serious Man, the latest film from the talented Coen brothers (most recently known for the Oscar winning No Country For Old Men). Dubbed their first “Jewish” film, this movie begins with a Yiddish parable about a dybbuk.

So you don’t know what a “dybbuk” is? Neither did I, because I’m not Jewish. The film doesn’t tell you what that word means, I had to go look it up later.  I’m not going to go so far as to say you won’t enjoy the movie if you are not Jewish, but I think you will have an inherently better understanding and appreciation for the movie. I found it frustrating that the Coen brothers seem to take at face value that you know all about Jewish traditions and mannerisms, and I felt a little left out.

I admire the fact that the prolific brothers clearly wrote this film as an homage to their Jewish roots, and I got the sense that there was definitely a biographical component to the film. Essentially, this is a modern-day retelling of the Book of Job, which is one of the books of the Hebrew bible.

Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg steps into the shoes of the Job-like Larry Gopnik, who watches helplessly as a series of events causes his life to unravel.  Consequently, he starts questioning fate, God, religion, and his purpose in life.  Not exactly light fodder.  The movie is bleak, bland and unpleasant.  It is beautifully constructed,  but the story itself is underwhelming.

We already know that the Coen brothers are excellent filmmakers, and the opening sequence (after the Yiddish parable) which follows an earpiece cord directly into a boys auditory canal, then quickly pans back out, shows that they are still on top of their game.  Coen enthusiasts won’t be disappointed with the technical merit of the film.

But that story–Oy Vey!  In the course of a few days, Larry finds out his wife is leaving him, his professor tenure is threatened, his brother (who lives with him) has legal problems, etc.  Any person could probably handle one of these predicaments thrown at them now and again, but to be buried by an onslaught of misfortune all at once proves too daunting for Larry.

He is thrown into an existential crisis of conscious and faith.  He seeks the advice and council of three different Rabbis, to no avail. Nothing is resolved, and the film ends with a maddeningly open-ended and vague thud.

There are some things I really enjoyed about the movie.  Michael Stuhlbarg (who was nominated for  a Tony in 2005) is nothing short of brilliant in his performance as the beleaguered Larry. He is a tremendous find, and the Coens deserve high praise for casting him. I believe we will be seeing a lot  more from this talented actor. Richard Kind is also very good as Larry’s shlub of a brother, Arthur.

The humor is dark and subtle, and there are some very funny nuances in the movie. However, there were several scenes that had a Jewish colleague of mine howling with laughter, while I just sat there, wondering what was so funny. Without a Jewish frame of reference, much of the humor was lost on me.  I wish I had been privy to the inside joke.

  • Shannon Hood
    October 30, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Joel, thanks for clarifying. I had a hard time connecting with the movie, because I obviously (incorrectly) assumed it was full of “inside” jokes, which kind of ended up shaping my experience. Perhaps I will give it another go when it comes out on DVD. I will say that in my screening, my Jewish colleague was laughing at a lot more scenes than the rest of us did, which further drove my assumption.

    At any rate, since you are a longtime member of the faith, what were your overall impressions of the movie? I’ve been curious if Jewish people find the movie offensive, or loved it. Would love to hear your feedback.

  • Joel Mossberg
    October 30, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Shannon,

    I’ve been Jewish for 35 years…no idea what a ‘dybbuk’ was, nor did any of the Jews in my theater.

    The joke was that you did not have to know what a ‘dybbuk’ is in order to get the joke.

    You were in on it as much as every single person in the theater. I guarantee it.

    Joel

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