Reviews: A Serious Man

A Serious Man is the Coen brothers’ latest black comedy, a layered modern tragedy focused on the life and mind of Larry Gopnik; physics tutor, Jew, husband, father, brother, man (in that order). The film begins with an eerie Yiddish prologue set in Olden Times. The Coens have stated that the prologue’s events have no real relation to the greater film other than that of tone, and I find that to be an odd choice by them (or, at least, an odd statement). The prologue ends with one of the characters declaring that a curse has been brought upon their house, and as the film unfolds that declaration seems to bear particularly ironic fruit. It doesn’t really matter that there is no literal connection drawn between the characters of the prologue and the characters of the main story; this film is about themes. Faith, reason, God, science, fate and punishment; those kind of themes.

Gopnik is played (or played down) by Michael Stuhlbarg, a relative unknown. Indeed, many of the actors in this film are unknown save Richard Kind (who plays Arthur Gopnik, Larry’s ailing, gambling, pathetic brother). Sari Lennick, quite convincing as the long-suffering wife to Stuhlbarg’s oblivious husband, had never acted for either television or film prior to this. There must be reasons for the specifically obscure choices in casting. The Coens have been able to handpick major stars and famous leading actors for years now; why would they head back into New York theatre to pluck out a few talented unknowns to take the main roles? I think the answer lies with Aristotle. In discussing Greek tragedy, Aristotle asserted that the characters should be full and vibrant but that the plot should be the driving force of any performance. Tragedy is about exposing the conflicting natures of the human soul and that was best achieved in the representation and demonstration of larger, universal themes. As such, the characters were generally more vessels for themes or particular philosophies than they were fully fleshed out people.

I believe the Coens set out to use these talented unknown actors in order to keep the focus on the plot, the philosophies and the overall themes of the movie. If John Turturro was playing Larry Gopnik everyone would be focused on how reminiscent the whole thing was of Barton Fink. If it were John Goodman as Sy Ableman, Judith Gopnik’s new-found life partner, would we not be at least partially distracted from the deeper themes that the Coens were exploring? It’s arguable that no, we wouldn’t be distracted at all because they’re excellently talented actors who disappear into their roles. But still, it was clearly enough of a concern to the Coen brothers for them to steer clear of big names.

The film unfolds at a leisurely pace. It spends a large portion of the film simply exploring the day-to-day interactions of the main characters, with little sense of urgency or tension. Along the way Larry is exposed to several situations in which his morality is tested. Money troubles, family troubles and work troubles pile onto Larry’s yamulka-adorned head until eventually they all converge in one act of immorality; a small act, certainly, but an act of immorality nevertheless. This film is devoted to the representation of faith and the Old Testament understanding of God. The story of Job is particularly relevant. If you don’t know the story of Job don’t read it before seeing this film, as you’ll ruin the experience. As the film’s title suggests, it also explores the interaction between science and faith. Gopnik is a man of reason and science, but he’s also a Jew. Gopnik finds it difficult – even impossible – to rationalise one with the other and the consequences are brilliantly depicted.

As for the viewing experience; the movie is slow, beautifully shot and interestingly acted. Unfortunately, for me, the slowness translated to boredom. It wasn’t until the final shot that something actually grabbed me and hooked me in (and I do intend on seeing this film again). Therefore, I do recommend A Serious Man. Just don’t go in expecting the lively dialogue and fun plot progression of something like The Big Lebowski. That it quite decidedly aint.

– Ben Vernel

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