A Serious Man (2009) Review

A Serious Man (2009) Review
| Nov 6, 2009

I’m not sure how seriously to take A Serious Man. This semi-comedy, semi-drama, semi-autobiographical film from the Coen Brothers treads dangerously close to farce at times, but there’s something so bizarrely real to it that it can be taken either as blistering self-examination or exaggerated family melodrama. What I do know is that this is another one of those satisfying Coen comedies where we have a character being driven mad by the insanity around them as they try desperately to keep some semblance of control. It’s been a recurrent theme in the Brothers’ work lately, whether it’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell cleaning up after the carnage of a drug deal gone bad in No Country For Old Men, or the frazzled CIA analyst Osbourne Cox and his missing memoirs in Burn After Reading.

Taking place in the obvious 60s, we meet physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), and the course of Larry’s life does not run smooth. Racked with anticipation as to whether or not he’ll receive tenure, Larry encounters a disgruntled student that wants to bribe him for a better grade.

At home, Larry’s wife Judith (Sari Lennick) drops a bombshell saying that she wants to leave him for widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and she wants him to grant her a divorce. Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is taking money from his sister for pot and listens to a portable radio as he’s supposed to be learning Hebrew for his upcoming bar mitzvah, but Larry’s not privy to that particular piece of information. Then there’s Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind) with his constant use of the bathroom and his crazy mathematical scheme to cheat at cards.

This world is madness for Larry Gopnick, and if anyone’s deserving of a Falling Down moment it’s definitely this guy. Sure, you might be living at the Jolly Roger because your wife wants you out and refuses to move in with her new boyfriend to “keep up appearances,” but at least your kid can still phone you and pester you about fixing the aerial to get better reception on F-Troop. Your boss comes into your office and drops subtle hints that perhaps you won’t be getting the promotion you’ve been hedging your bets on, but then casts away all doubts telling you not to worry. Divorce lawyer fees are killing you financially, your wife insists you pay for her lover’s funeral, and there’s a strong possibility that Uncle Arthur’s a sexual deviant, but if you dole out any punishment on this life, chances are you inflict it upon yourself.

This is where Stuhlbarg shines. He may be one of those “I know that guy” actors that has appeared in various TV shows and movies, but he owns every minute of screen time he fills in A Serious Man. There’s subtlety, there’s deep-seeded emotion, there’s a tricky balance of serious drama and comedic straightman to consider, but Stuhlbarg weaves and bobs his way through the script beautifully. I seriously hope he gets some decent awards consideration for this role.

But as much as Stuhlbarg must be the grounded centre of the film, the other actors reach for the fences with some of their portrayals, but strangely things still feel real. Melamed does wickedly feigning sympathy for his romantic nemesis and perfectly sews an elder, Jewish Eddie Haskell character that you just love to hate. In smaller roles, Alan Mandell, George Wyner and Simon Helberg playing three rabbis Larry consults for spiritual guidance are drop dead hilarious. But I’m not sure if the Coens are making a comment on the effectiveness of Judaism as a comfort or whether they’re taking the meandering rabbi stereotype for a spin.

Regardless, at the centre of all things in this film is the question: Am I watching a straight-faced comedy, or a subversive family melodrama? I honestly don’t know and I frankly don’t care. This isn’t as pointedly gut-wrenching as some of the Brothers other dramatic work, but it’s also not as zany as their previous comedic outings either. This is a unique Coen concoction that I think takes the filmmakers in strange new directions. It’s a subtle little movie that says a lot without you noticing, and it dresses up the bizarre nature of our everyday reality with a deft and light comedic touch.

A Serious Man (2009) Review 1
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick
Running Time:
106 min
CGM Editors Choice