A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Serious Man (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2009)

Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man is a mordant tragicomedy that was surprisingly nominated for a best picture Oscar, edging out films like A Single Man (Tom Ford), Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron), Bright Star (Jane Campion), Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson), and my own preference, About Elly (Asghar Farhadi). Perhaps the Coen brothers were still coasting on the acclaim and the Oscars they received for No Country for Old Men (2007), but A Serious Man seems to me a decidedly lesser work, too dependent on comic Jewish stereotypes -- the pot-smoking kid studying for his bar mitzvah, the sister saving for a nose job, the feckless uncle who hogs the bathroom, and so on. The protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a lesser, latter-day Job, whose "comforters" include some preoccupied, cliché-spouting rabbis whom Larry seeks out as he tries to deal with his troubles: His wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so she can marry a widowed family friend (Fred Melamed); his freeloading brother (Richard Kind) keeps getting in trouble with the police; his bid for tenure as a physics professor is threatened by a student -- a stereotyped Asian -- who tries to slip him an envelope full of cash so Larry will change his grade; a gentile neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) seems to be displaying passive-aggressive hostility; a provocatively sexy neighbor (Amy Landecker) sunbathes naked while Larry is on the roof trying to adjust the TV antenna, and so on. He is plagued with nightmares in which all of these figures combine to torment him. The Coens seem to regard all of this as a kind of parable: They begin the film with their version of a Jewish folktale involving a man, his wife, and a dybbuk, and they end it with an approaching tornado -- is God going to speak out of the whirlwind? But the result, especially given the setting in 1960s suburbia, feels more like imitation Philip Roth. There's a lot to admire in the film, including Roger Deakins's cinematography, and some of the theological issues it raises are worth raising, but it left me with a sour feeling.

1 comment:

sheila himmel said...

Creepy and pointless movie I never need to see again, yet somehow remember fondly. Mostly for Richard Kind, as when he yells at his brother whose life is falling apart, something like, "You have everything! And what have I ever had? Bupkis!"