Serious Man, A (2009)

Weird but fascinating, this sublime black comedy is for the die-hard Coens fan.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
2009 | USA | Drama/Comedy | 106 mins | 1.85:1 | English
M18 (passed clean) for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence

Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick
Plot: Larry Gopnik is a Midwestern professor who watches his life unravel when his wife prepares to leave him because his inept brother won’t move out of the house.
Awards: Nom. for 2 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay
US Distributor: Focus Features

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Strange
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Review #489

(Reviewed in theatres – first published 23 Feb 2010)

Spoilers: No

A Serious Man is perhaps the weirdest film ever to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. It also earned another nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

The Coens’ new film is their most personal yet. The Oscar-winning duo best known for violent crime dramas such as Blood Simple (1984), Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007) are also masters of the oddball comedy.

Think of well-written farces like Raising Arizona (1987) and Burn after Reading (2008). However, with A Serious Man, the Coens (like they have always been doing) have broken new ground.

A Serious Man tells the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a well-mannered and morally upright Jewish professor of physics whose quite comfortable life takes a turn for the worst when things start to go against him.

He faces problems with work and life, and most critically, questions the relevance of his Jewish faith in providing answers to life’s seemingly inexplicable complications.

Larry knows he is a good man at heart – he loves his wife (who unfortunately wants a divorce because she has fallen for another man), his children (whose materialistic desires suggest Larry has been ‘soft’ (read: positively obliging towards them), cares for his brother (by allowing him to temporarily stay in the house), and is ethical in his profession (he refuses a Korean student who tries to bribe him to change a poor grade) – thus he is unable to accept the negative happenings in his life without a rational explanation.

“I don’t want Santana Abraxis! I’ve just been in a terrible auto accident!”

A Serious Man’s main theme involves the debate between rationalism and faith (in Jewish religion). Can all things be explained in rational terms? If not, can faith explain them? But what if faith cannot answer them? Is faith then irrelevant in a world of rationality? These are questions Larry is trying to seek enlightenment on.

The Coens (whom are Jewish themselves) do not provide viewers with the answers. That would have been morally impeding as this is a sensitive issue.

However, through their film, the Coens are trying to suggest that faith should be seen as a construct for one to voluntary accept a (negative) circumstance even though it may not always be edifying.

In one scene, Larry climbs up to the roof of his house to fix the broadcast signal receiver (read: a good act) only to ‘accidentally’ spot a completely nude woman having a suntan on her backyard (read: a sin).

This may be a minor scene among the film’s more didactic visuals, but it clearly shows that not everything is bound by a rational (or religious) explanation.

The Coens brilliantly marry dark humor to the film’s existentialist take on the rationality-faith argument, thus bringing to life a potentially serious matter in a morbidly pleasurable way. Stuhlberg’s performance is also outstanding and deserves an Oscar nomination.

A Serious Man starts with a curiously detached prologue which suggests rationality as superseding faith, and ends without any warning like No Country for Old Men, leaving viewers to either grasp at thin air or marvel at the geniuses behind this exceptional film.

Grade: A-



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