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)

Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man
Larry Gopnik: Michael Stuhlbarg
Uncle Arthur: Richard Kind
Sy Abelman: Fred Melamed
Judith Gopnik: Sari Lennick
Danny Gopnik: Aaron Wolff
Sarah Gopnik: Jessica McManus
Rabbi Marshak: Alan Mandel
Don Milgram: Adam Arkin
Rabbi Nachtner: George Wyner
Mrs. Samsky: Amy Landecker

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Production design: Jess Gonchor
Music: Carter Burwell

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, 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 wants a divorce so she can marry a widowed family friend, Sy Abelman; his freeloading brother Arthur 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 seems to be displaying passive-aggressive hostility; a provocatively sexy neighbor 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.