So close on the heel of one personal film (Where The Wild Things Are) comes this very, very personal film from the Coen brothers. So personal, I never felt a part of it. I have come to be a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen over the years, appreciating their taste for regional language, interesting faces, and ambling set-ups. A Serious Man starts out as so many of their films do, with interesting characters becoming enmeshed in interesting situations. Unlike most of their films, however, A Serious Man appears to go nowhere.
Larry Gopnik (the fabulous Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mild-mannered physics teacher hovering at the lingering ends of the cultural 1950s well after the leading edge of the late 1960’s is already underway. It’s the end of the suburban dream and the beginning of the sexual revolution, but Larry is late to that party. Gradually, personal problems go from petty vexations to real tribulations and Larry stumbles impotently through it all. His life devolves before his eyes like a sand castle in a hurricane. His crisis of faith takes him to see the counsel of three rabbis, and he never seems to lose hope that al this chaos must conceal some plan, some greater purpose, but he’s driven batty by not knowing what that plan is. His life resembles that of Job, but he’s like Candide in his simplicity – surely, this is how it should be — but with the Jewish academics’ need to know why. He’s a phsyics teacher whose world can be explained by neat, simple math, until now. He doesn’t seem deserving of his fate, unless sheer spinelessness is a crime.
Stuhlbarg is a theatre veteran who plays Gopnik with tremulous urgency and meek bewilderment. He is instantly sympathetic and we ride every emotional peak and valley with him effortlessly. He is definitely the best thing about this film. As always, all the Coen actors are well cast and give good performances, but Stuhlbarg is particularly affecting. His nemesis, Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) embodies that clueless narcissistic infantile adult of that era, trying to navigate freaky new waters by embracing them without thought. The other actors were great, especially Larry’s wife, first-time film actor Sari Lennick. Her character was so exasperating but so solid, I forgot how much I hated her in my enthusiasm for the actress.
The problem I had with the movie is this: Larry’s terrible travails all seemed to open dozens of interesting narrative doors but no one ever follows them, and so most of them hardly even resolve, never mind figure into the big picture. In a scene you might seize on a glowing ember of possibility and go, “ah ha! This is where the story will take us next,” but then it never does. Like the story of the goy’s teeth, we get interesting threads but empty teases. A few arcs come back to earth but so many remain in orbit. I don’t need a rom-com bow on the top, but I’d like to have some of my emotional investment in these tales have a point. If the whole thing is an extended Jewish fable to illustrate the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, well, thanks for nothing.
A Serious Man is steeped in Yiddish culture and suffering and slang and I felt left behind pretty quickly despite knowing some of the things they were talking about. A fable-like prologue set in a long-ago shtetl left me struggling to connect their story with his. Maybe I am too dumb for the Coens nowadays, or maybe I am just too Gentile for this movie. Perhaps the emperor is actually wearing clothes and I just can’t see them. Either way, I came out of the movie theatre feeling disgruntled and a little cheated. See it for Stuhlberg and Lennick, and for Roger Deakin’s unfailing cinematic eye, but save your money.
MPAA Rating R-language, drug use, some sexuality, nudity, violence
Release date 10/2/09
Time in minutes 105
Director Joel and Ethan Coen
Studio Focus Features