A Serious Man – *1/2
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Peter Breitmayer, Fred Melamed
Release date: October 31, 2009
The Coen Brothers‘ catalogue of films displays verification, in the grander scheme of things, of how meager and unimportant human life actually is. Verification also of our incompetency as humans to realize what awaits us. To quote a line from the Coens’ film No Country for Old Men, “you can’t stop what’s comin’.”
Joel and Ethan Coen love to show their characters being submissive to the realms of evil; accepting what is coming to them regardless of the outcome. The perilous paths they travel down usually have connotations resembling desperation, greed and envy, all of which can lead to death. Acting against these overt connotations becomes imperative to the characters, almost to a point where discerning them becomes a natural instinct to ensure the longevity that life offers us. By not taking any action against these explicit sins a logical story cannot bloom, leaving an audience in dismay at what they just watched.
Stiffened in the fate that causes him to question his entire being, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a middle-aged man married with two children in suburbia Minnesota circa 1967, is falling through a portal of infinite darkness, plunging full throttle into this pool of black and not possessing the slightest will of halting this bleak voyage.
That is all you need to know about A Serious Man; that it is a series of catastrophic events that alter a man’s life for the worst. Larry’s wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so she can marry an overly-sympathetic man named Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Here we go [deep breath], Larry’s tenure at a university he teaches at is threatened, his neighbors are off-the-wall bizarre, a student threatens and bribes him, his problematic brother (Richard Kind) lives with him and Larry’s children have no respect for anything except for pot and thievery [exhale]. He tries to get in touch with local Rabbis to figure out solutions regarding his life. Even they cannot come up with a legitimate answer, providing him with unstable metaphors and tales.
This is an original scirpt from Joel and Ethan who found motivation for this subject (which is semi-autobiographical) by tapping into the book of Job, a Biblical tale that stresses faith and morality in the face of extreme of adversity. A Serious Man opens with a Yiddish tale that is related somewhat to the life of Job. And this tale is more powerful than the actual film itself. Job was a strong, blessed man with courage and an unbreakable will power. A man financially set and with a loving family, Job had all he could ask for. Satan however wanted to challenge Job’s integrity by having God take away all he possesses, seeing if Job, in the long run, will still remain loyal to his God. Larry Gopnik does not show any indications of a figure resembling Job. He is ultimately a man without any true qualities. Rather, he resembles a meek individual who has lost faith even before Satan tries to take it away from.
The Coens’ last film, Burn After Reading, made it a point to be about nothing, and the Coens achieved a good film that belittled human desires. A Serious Man is about a remarkable subject (keeping the faith) but ends up being about nothing, indulging lavishly, resulting in rigorous boredom, in the insufficiencies of Larry’s life, not capturing anything else that may be relevant because there isn’t anything relevant or worth exploring in his mundane life.
Instead of arousing such wild and widespread sympathy, the Coens have established a character that deserves more of what is coming to him, and is severely a cheap imitation of Job. Part of that can be blamed on Stuhlbarg’s dry and dramatically empty performance that leaves a sour portrait of a man acting immature in the face of adversity. Larry looks self-deprecating, castigating himself simply by looking the way he does and acting foolishly in his process of finding hope. He has no control over his life to begin with. Nothing is revealed in his character prior to his downfall that can solidify his stature as a “good” or “serious” man. He is a random guy who practically shows no “manliness” in his demeanor. It just so happens he gets condemned by a higher being. With possessing very little attributes of a good man he is slated to receive very little remorse.