Movie Review: A Serious Man

A Serious Man is an uncompromising tale, densely packed with nuance and detail as well as the trademark charm synonymous with the name Coen. Absent from the film are the lackluster and arbitrary storytelling decisions found in recent Coen Brothers fare like Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading. Instead the Coens keep the relatively small story of a nebbish yet well-meaning family man piping with entertainment by forgoing cheap and easy laughs for the sake of real human pathos.

Primarily A Serious Man tells the story of Larry Gopnik, a mild-mannered physics professor (played aptly by relative newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg) whose life takes an unforeseen nosedive when his wife’s fidelity comes into question. It also tells the story of Larry’s son Danny who is perched on becoming a man at his upcoming Bar Mitzvah ceremony. This is the only movie I’ve ever seen where I felt a distinct disadvantage for being gentile, as my mostly Orthodox neighbors in Los Angeles laughed at jokes I couldn’t possibly comprehend, delivered wholly in Hebrew. I wouldn’t bring it up except for the fact that A Serious Man is by its very nature a story about Jewish storytelling and the tales the Jewish people pass down through the generations to bring them solace or hope. My extensive grade school bible-beating and that one Hebrew Narrative class I took at Northwestern (thank you, Professor Ben Solomon) helped me a little, but the majority of this film deals with a narrative tradition so intrinsically Jewish it made me feel more than a little out of the loop when it came to deciphering it. Thankfully, I’m always up for a challenge when it comes to complex storytelling, so I saw no reason why I couldn’t go a little Gorillas in the Mist on it for you.

When I say that A Serious Man is uncompromising, I mean that it doesn’t hold your hand at any point while watching it, and it certainly doesn’t spoon-feed you an ending. I, for one, am a huge fan of this tactic. In an age where technological monstrosities like Transformers 2 literally ravage our eye sockets for three hours while begging to labeled as “entertainment,” it was nice to see some competent filmmakers turn back to oral tradition, the method of verbally passing stories down from one generation to the next, as the basis for their narrative structure. A Serious Man opens with a seemingly unrelated ghost story immersed in Jewish culture. Never do we return to this prologue or acknowledge its existence in a literal way. It merely sets the tone and gives us a sense that yes, there were people living their lives with their own customs and cultures before our protagonists ever existed. How could an unrelated prologue serve as a strong narrative device, especially one strong enough to open a film?

Protip: It’s not really unrelated. Throughout Larry Gopnik’s trials and tribulations it seems that only one thing is certain: Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Bad things happen to Larry at an exponential rate, and as he turns to his rabbinical leaders for guidance, their inexperience and impersonal methods fail to comfort him. None of the rabbis offer a concrete method for hope. They only remind him that his people have suffered before, and the implication is that suffering needlessly is a part of being Jewish. A sensible and good-intentioned man, Larry is pushed to the brink of breaking his code of morality by the film’s conclusion. The question is, will he be rewarded or punished further for his actions?

Without spoiling anything, I’ll admit that I was startled when the credits started to roll, only because I expected there to be another half-hour of movie left. As I exited the theater, I realized the Coen Brothers had crafted what might be their most perfect film, a tightly contained universe bound in the tradition and oppression of their ancestors, deftly compressed into a microcosm of Jewish suffering through the seemingly mundane life of a single unlucky man. Everything you need to get out of A Serious Man is right in front of your eyes, but because it isn’t handed to you it might be a little harder to spot. The moral ambiguity of The Man Who Wasn’t There abounds, but unlike that dark and plodding tale, this film has a richer history than the Coen’s oft-visited pulp noir genre of storytelling. Not that noir hasn’t served the Coen’s well in the past (see: Barton Fink, The Big Lebowksi, all the rest of them for cryin’ out loud) but sometimes the well runs dry when you’re pirating motifs from a relatively recently birthed genre (as old as film itself perhaps? Call my bluff on this one, please), and smartly enough the Coens went back to their personal history for guidance.

I recommend this movie so highly that I almost say you should skip Where the Wild Things Are this weekend to catch A Serious Man while it’s still in theaters. However, both films are incredibly strong (for different reasons, more on WtWTA to come) and if you’re looking for a brilliant, sincere and adult drama with many comedic moments you’ll have no trouble finding yourself satisfied at the movies this weekend.

Grade: A+

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