A Serious Man
Writers/Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Malamed, Sari Lennick
Review: 4.5 stars (of five)
A Serious Man is an excellent meditation on how people make sense of the giant, random and often cruel mess that is life, a quiet film shot through with vivid but restrained performances, understated humor.
The movie looks at how we use the invention of religion to impose order on the chaos. It’s one of the Coen Brothers’ most challenging films, and is therefore something daring, that should be celebrated far more than its likely box office haul. Thoughtful, intelligent movie making by expert craftsmen exploring big issues in an absence of high-profile stars or shiny special effects—we need more of that.
The film opens with a fable, set perhaps 150 years ago, that has absolutely no direct correlation in the film, though you may find yourself thinking about the thematic links. Don’t let that bother you. Once the film jumps to its true setting, a predominately Jewish slice of Minneapolis in 1967, we’re given the everyman lives of a slightly nerdy schoolboy and an uber-dorky, milquetoast college physics teacher. It’s awhile before we even see how the separate strands come together, and once we do, the film becomes the story of the teacher, one Larry Gopnik, who is facing just about every indignity life can throw at him.
He suffers these indignities in helpless, castrated silence, and as we wait to see how much he can take, we watch him seek the advice of a trio of rabbis, among others, none of whom can make the least sense of Larry’s suffering for him. In all this, the film presents a brilliant portrait of religious faith in contrast to the pains of life in a random universe that shows no sign of compassion or caring. Religion as a question that will never be answered.
While the final scene of the film may divide audiences, the highlight comes (no spoilers ahead) moments before, when Larry makes a decision and immediately receives some new information. The reaction that juxtaposition inspires is one person that every who has ever lived has made. It’s a perfect moment that captures the entire film and really makes you appreciate the virtuosity of the filmmakers.
While this movie has no stars, and none of the outrageous fun that marks, one way or another, many of the Coen’s most memorable films, and one of their most important.