Movie Review: A Serious Man

November 15, 2009    By: Jacob J @ 9:14 pm   Category: Life

If I’ve counted correctly, A Serious Man is the Coen brothers’ 14th film. As the 2000s got underway, I was starting to think the Coens had lost their mojo. With Intolerable Cruelty in 2003 and then The Ladykillers in (2004) things were on a bad trajectory. Luckily, after taking a few years off they proved they still had some genius left by adding another masterpiece to their body of work with No Country For Old Men. Last year brought Burn After Reading which, despite having its moments, was not in contention for their best work.

Last night I went to see A Serious Man without knowing what to expect. I didn’t know anything about the film except that it has gotten a very narrow release (I had to drive all the way into Portland to see it) due, supposedly, to its being inaccessibly steeping in things Jewish. It didn’t take long for me to realize I was watching a new Coen brothers masterpiece. The movie has all the hallmarks you’ve come to expect from the Coens: unforgettable characters, palpable tone, brilliant storytelling, and dark comedy.

The film is about Larry Gopnik, a Jewish professor of physics who is struggling to make sense of the fact that his life that is crumbling down around him. It’s true that there is a lot that is Jewish in the film, but far from making the movie inaccessible, I thought it brought the movie right into the living room. Gopnik is a regular guy, trying to do the right thing for his family, trying to live a moral life, working hard and hoping to get tenure, excited about his son’s coming bar mitzvah. While his marriage, job, and family unexpectedly begin to melt down, he struggles to find the meaning. Why is God doing this to him? Why should he continue to follow his moral code when it has not protected him from this devastation?

The movie does not attempt to “answer” this problem, exactly, but it does explore the problem in a brilliant way. The opening vignette (in Yiddish) and the final conclusion of the movie are left to the viewer to interpret, so I can’t predict what you’ll think, but from my perspective it was ultimately faith-affirming.[2] There is no defense offered for the God who sits silently while Gopnik suffers, but it is not a movie about God. It is a movie about all of us and how we’ll respond to morality when faced with such a God.

So, where does this fall in the pantheon of Coen brother’s movies? Somewhere near the top. I have a hard enough time already ranking their best 5 movies, but this one will make it that much harder. Seriously, go see this movie.

[1] When reading a movie review it is nice to know how your own movie preferences line up with the reviewer. For reference, here is how I rank the previous Coen brothers films. How can Fargo be as low as fifth? It’s a fair question, one that I struggle with. The top five are almost a toss up, I love them all. Miller’s Crossing really belongs in the top five too, but I don’t know how to get it in there.
1. The Big Lebowski
2. Raising Arizona
3. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
4. No Country For Old Men
5. Fargo
6. Miller’s Crossing
7. Blood Simple
8. Barton Fink
9. Burn After Reading
10. The Man Who Wasn’t There
11. The Hudsucker Proxy
12. Intolerable Cruelty
13. The Ladykillers

[2] Ever since reading the BCC review in which Batman: The Dark Knight was decried as a nearly Satanic movie, I realized that I should not make any guesses about what other people will take away from a film.


  1. I’m definitely interested in seeing this film.

    Most of the reviews seem to be very positive.

    The following review, done by the Israeli paper Ha-Aretz (sort of the Israeli version of the New York Times) is not positive – which is why it interests me. Check it out.

    Comment by danithew — November 16, 2009 @ 11:55 am

  2. danithew,

    Interesting review, thanks. It seems like he is largely upset about the portrayals of Judaism not ringing true to him. Sort of reminded me of how anything dealing with Mormonism is hard pressed to get a good review from Mormons. We just have too much invested in how we are portrayed. Suffice it to say that it was not possible for me to be bothered that “Larry’s yentish wife wouldn’t know what an “agunah” was.”

    This movie is slow in some of the same ways that Barton Fink is slow, but unlike Barton Fink (which I like, by the way) it has a discernible topic. As interested as I am in writers block, I’m much more interested in the struggle to navigate life’s turmoil, which is why this movie is much better than Barton Fink.

    It seems you can always ruin a movie with excessively high expectations so I don’t want to build it up unrealistically, but as for its being dull, my wife (who likes vampire and disaster movies and hates Woody Allen movies) said at the end she could have sat through another two hours of the movie. For me, I was invested and interested in the characters, so I didn’t find it dull at all.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 16, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

  3. I don’t have anything really to add, except my personal mantra when I was a missionary was:

    “Sometimes you get the bar, and sometimes the bar gets you.”

    Comment by Matt W. — November 16, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

  4. You got a good sasparilla?

    Comment by Jacob J — November 16, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

  5. Sounds really good. But I can’t bring myself to drive an hour+ to see it in a theater so I’ll wait for the DVD.

    You’ve convinced me to finally see all of The Big Lebowski finally too. I’ve only seen parts heretofore.

    Comment by Geoff J — November 17, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  6. I can’t be held responsible for the language.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 17, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

  7. Towards the end of the film, the most oft repeated line was, ‘but I didn’t do anything’. That is the defense the main character offered in response to his wife leaving him, to his fortunes turning, and one would expect he’d fall back on the same crutch if he ever realized what schmucks his kids are. I don’t see reviewers discussing this theme of fatalism, which is not exactly a new story line in Jewish literature and am surprised this hasn’t been addressed more fully, but I digress. Overall, because of his demonstrated unwillingness to learn, I lost faith in the character and his ability to redeem himself, his self absorbed and self destructive family, or the story.

    The antidote for apathy and, its twin, dependency, is action. However in this film, the main character is oblivious to reality and appears defensive and wounded, not awakened, searching, or capable of transcending these normal but trying life events. So, consequences that could increase comprehension and lead to a more realistic response to life are instead ignored, likely because they are a threat to his worldview, however distorted and inoperable it may be. The only direction this cast of characters seem willing to go, is either offering ridiculous platitudes, or equally obnoxious whining.

    For those reasons, I found it unsatisfying and claustrophobic as it spiraled downward, only to be ended by supposed acts of God like tornadoes and lung cancer. So, I’m not as entertained by the story as this reviewer was and don’t feel like it acknowledged any decency, goodness, or capacity for growth in people. I get that it was a parody of Job. But come on, Job let go of rational explanations and in embracing paradox was open to seeing the wonders of the world and ended up being blessed ten fold. Not so this character or this story.

    Thanks for letting me share. I feel much better now that I’ve gotten that off my chest.

    Comment by oR — November 18, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  8. oR,

    Thanks for commenting. I think our different reactions stem from the fact that I thought there was plenty to be interested in even when the characters didn’t trascend their problems. Similarly, I love the movie Unforgiven even though the Clint Eastwood character in the movie ultimately fails and is unredeemed (hence the perfect title). I don’t demand that the protagonist triumph. However, if you didn’t see any decency or goodness in the main character then I am at a loss and wonder if we saw the same movie. I didn’t think he was unwilling to learn, but just that he didn’t know what he was supposed to be learning from all of it. Hence, he’s left wondering what he did wrong.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 18, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

  9. I too went to the movie not knowing anything about the movie nor not knowing what to expect and I came out unsatisfied but not apparently as distanced from the main character as oR. Upon later reflection, I found the movie an examination of the age old paradox of “when bad things happen to good people.” As the reviewer notes, good guy Larry Gopnick struggled to make sense of his life suddenly crumbling down around him. As oR aptly pointed out, Gopnick often repeated, “but I didn’t do anything.” Suddenly bad things happened to a good person, and in his opinion, he really didn’t do anything to deserve them.

    The suddenness of these events could be a very disorienting experience for someone and I believe the Gopnick character more than adequately depicted his personal disorientation. All things come into question when life is “spiraling downward” (quote oR). Indeed, Gopnick didn’t know what he needed to learn as he wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong.

    I did have trouble tying in the opening vignette with the rest of the film and the ending felt very Barton Fink-esque (I left the theater scratching my head, just like I left the theater scratching my head at the ending of Barton Fink. . . same theater come to think of it).

    Comment by DM — November 18, 2009 @ 9:21 pm

  10. DM,

    I thought the ending on this one was much less opaque than Barton Fink was. I don’t want to give it away for people who haven’t seen the movie, but the issue of what to do about the envelope is constantly in the background throughout the whole movie. His decision about what to do with the envelope was the climax to which the whole movie was building. This moral dilemma was representative of the larger struggle he was having. The consequences of his decision seem fairly easy to interpret.

    Comment by Jacob J — November 18, 2009 @ 10:59 pm

  11. You both raise excellent points and I admit, I wanted the hero to be a hero, or even an anti-hero, as many of our postmodern stories dictate. But I didn’t see Larry even doing that. His acts of compassion and evidence of values made him a guy I could root for. DM, however, gets at the main problem I had with Larry. Is a guy who is that obtuse about his wife, family, and life a “good” guy? Shouldn’t his wife been able to expect something more from him than a petulant, “but I haven’t done anything wrong”? In my view, it made him seem like a third grader trying to get out of trouble, not a man with real responsibilities trying to find a way forward, even if unsuccessfully.

    So, I guess you can see why I didn’t like the movie. I should also admit though that the Coen brothers brilliance came through in some fun ways as well. Syd, the self proclaimed serious man, who orchestrates others lives ends up leaving the earth. Was he a reference to God in some way? He does in some ways seem to be a reflection of the opening vignette in that he speaks from beyond the grave (letters to tenure board, ongoing advice spoken through wife, etc).

    Also, Clive was the ultimate rational character in all this, or should I say rationalizing? Regardless, he couldn’t do the math, but continued to insist on a passing grade though he hadn’t earned it. How? By twisting the teacher over his own morals. When Jacob wrestled the angel, did Jacob win by being right or deserving it? Nope. Anyway, interesting message from the brothers Coen and their weird little universe.

    Comment by oR — November 19, 2009 @ 9:59 am