Greg Hunter

Film Review: A Serious Man

In Film and Television on October 6, 2009 at 12:35 AM

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A Serious Man is the most unrelentingly bleak movie Joel and Ethan Coen have made. This is not why it’s a great film, though the film is great. Throughout A Serious Man–filmed in the Coens’ native Minnesota–they follow Larry Gopnick, a middle-class Jewish academic, as he faces accumulating marital, professional, and financial problems. Although the movie’s setting is awfully specific (it’s also a period piece, set in 1967), most of the major concerns of the last decade-or-so of “mainstream indie” filmmaking are touched on at some point (family, suburbia, academia, death). But the Coens avoid the miserablism of Tood Solondz’s Happiness, the heavy-handedness of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, and the cluelessness about how families (and professors) talk found in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages. Their film is an odd synthesis of darkness and humor–not something unique to the Coens’ filmography, but executed with particular gracefulness here.

No Country For Old Men, from two year ago, was partially about the absence of hope–it ended with Tommy Lee Jones overwhelmed by changing times and knowingly unequipped to deal with them. Tonally, A Serious Man is much different than the Coens’ Cormac McCarthy adaptation, but it has in common with No Country the refusal to provide any message of uplift. I’m not convinced there’s a central message to A Serious Man at all, and it’s more persistently dark, but it is–let me be explict–very, very funny. There are themes, sure–the film is structured according to Gopnick’s faint search for guidance within the Jewish faith. (Given my relative ignorance, I’ll leave my remarks on the treatment of Judaism at that.) But the film’s neatest treat has everything to do with the many troubles in Gopnick’s life continuously piling up–somehow, viewers catch a glimpse of something sublime.

A potential complaint against A Serious Man film is that little of Gopnick’s interior is conveyed, though it’s probably better to accept that the Coens are interested in other things. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry as a sympathetic blank–impossible to identify with completely, for lack of knowing exactly what one would be identifying with. Other characters, such as the head of Gopnick’s tenure committee or his crew-cutted, Aryan neighbor, are defined only by a collection of mannerisms and their relative sensitivity or rudeness. There are few displays of real compassion in A Serious Man–at best, there are displays of good manners–but this is key to the film’s comedy (and by extension, its agreeability). Scene after scene, the Coens mine laughs from hesitation, exasperation, and forced politeness. There is joy in this film, and not from simple schadenfreude–it’s deeply satisfying to watch something by people so in control of their craft.

(Incidentally: If this all sounds like cheerleading, maybe cheerleading is necessary, if the film’s New Yorker and Wall Street Journal are any indication.)

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