A Serious Man (2009)

  • Time: 106 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Drama
  • Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
  • Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Aaron Wolff, Sari Lennick


Bloomington, Minnesota, 1967: Jewish physics lecturer Larry Gopnik is a serious and a very put-upon man. His daughter is stealing from him to save up for a nose job, his pot-head son, who gets stoned at his own bar-mitzvah, only wants him round to fix the TV aerial and his useless brother Arthur is an unwelcome house guest. But both Arthur and Larry get turfed out into a motel when Larry’s wife Judy, who wants a divorce, moves her lover, Sy, into the house and even after Sy’s death in a car crash they are still there. With lawyers’ bills mounting for his divorce, Arthur’s criminal court appearances and a land feud with a neighbour Larry is tempted to take the bribe offered by a student to give him an illegal exam pass mark. And the rabbis he visits for advice only dole out platitudes. Still God moves in mysterious – and not always pleasant – ways, as Larry and his family will find out.

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  • 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.

    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- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

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