God complex – A Serious Man review

A Serious Man – Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind and Sari Lennick. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

Those cheeky Coen Brothers. They love to run both their characters and their audience through the wringer, don’t they? After turning the spy genre on its head with the black comedy Burn After Reading, they return once more to their never-ending plight to excavate the murky depths of the human soul with A Serious Man. The film is a loose retelling of the Biblical story of Job, a righteous man who was tested by God. Joel and Ethan Coen similarly test their lead character, Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), in a deliciously dark and intoxicating manner. The film is dripping in irony; it is bleak, unsettling, disturbing, challenging and even asphyxiating. It is waiting to be devoured and dissected and discussed. What can I say? It’s a mitzvah!

Not all is kosher in the world of Larry Gopnick. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for the condescendingly comforting Sy Ableman. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind), a mathematical idiot savant and shnorrer extraordinaire, has moved into his home for an indefinite amount of time. His children, a pot-smoking son on the eve of his bar mitzvah and a daughter who seems to only wash her hair, have no interest in Larry except for his ability to fix the reception of the television. Things aren’t much better at work. A South Korean student is both bribing and blackmailing Larry in the hopes of changing his failing grade to a pass, while an anonymous letter-writer is encouraging the university board to deny him tenure. If Larry is an ant scuttling under the warm rays of the sun, The Coens are the mischievous boys holding the magnifying glass above him.

As Larry’s life systematically falls apart, he decides to turn to his faith. He looks to three rabbis for some advice, some comfort, some anything. As a physics professor, he refuses to believe the world could be ruled by chaos. Arthur has seemingly figured out an equation for the inner workings of the universe. Therefore, if there is an equation to life, there must surely be an answer. Is Larry being tested by God? Has his existence and all these events been predetermined? Or is the onslaught of ironic torture just one of those (un)happy coincidences? Oi gevald!

Joel and Ethan Coen love to play God; they put their characters through hell, torturing them endlessly and treating them with disdain before finally giving them peace (usually through death, madness or some form of imprisonment). In that sense, Larry Gopnick is the archetypal Coen Brothers hero. As frustratingly passive as Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There; as cluelessly destructive as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo; as hopelessly agonized as Barton Fink in Barton Fink. Does that make the brothers Coen cruel? A little. Larry frequently exclaims throughout the film: “I haven’t done anything!” But that doesn’t excuse him from punishment; in fact, that is reason enough. Austrian director Michael Haneke similarly tortures his characters and audiences by assuming they are inherently evil. At least the characters created by the Coens have it coming.

A Serious Man is one of the best films the Coen Brothers have ever made. It is also their most alienating and disturbing since Barton Fink, which also dealt with similar existential themes. Reteaming with cinematographer Roger Deakins for the tenth time, the brothers stunningly recreate the late 1960s in all its claustrophobic glory. Michael Stuhlbarg gives an Oscar-worthy performance; he remains sympathetic and relatable, even as the drek rains down harder and faster upon him. How many times do we also exclaim “I haven’t done anything” just like Larry Gopnick. Does that mean we too deserve punishment? Hey, maybe.

The film’s closest spiritual relations are Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and even Alex ProyasKnowing. However, while those films enliven the human spirit, this film suffocates it. That’s not a criticism. In fact, it’s a compliment. A Serious Man, despite its title, is very, very funny. However, you’ll find that you have to choke out the laughs. What begins as a slow-burn erupts into an inferno. Larry is slipping into hell, and so too do we. Don’t be fooled by the false sense of security towards the end of the picture. That’s simply the eye of the storm. The film ends with the ultimate dues-ex-machina: reality. It is the Coen Brothers grabbing the audience by the collar and screaming in our face: “Do something dammit!” If any film could convince us, it’d be this one.


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11 Responses to “God complex – A Serious Man review”

  1. You can't begin to compare the Coens to Haneke. Haneke takes, an almost sexual, pleasure out of killing people in his films and then criticizes his audience for watching what he made.

  2. I agree; believe me though, the comparison is not made to denigrate the Coens.

  3. Well written, passionate review but like most favorable reviews I've seen of this film, you can't even come close to putting a finger on what the hell this movie is about. All you've really done is rehash the plot and go "ooooh man…that's MESSED uuuuup!" What maes this film worthwhile??? Just because it was confusing and philosophical and off-beat doesn't make it good or intriguing. Those things just serve to muddy a poorly executed stoners rehash of growing up Jewish.I like the Coens quite a bit but this film reeks of the one-off "lets do this one quick and dirty!" mentality that plagued films like "Burn After Reading," "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "Intolerable Cruelty."Many times I feel like people are willing to excuse the Coens' missteps because they've made so many indelible films. But I think the bros too often get caught up in cool characterizations coupled with a few big scenes. These sparse items do not a movie make. When those things click in with a larger picture, the Coen's are amazing. When they slap some stoner homage together as some kind of inside joke that only they get, it's a waste of time. "A Serious Man" is a serious waste of time.Again, I admire your passion and this is well written, but I still don't see what you-or any critic who loves this- loves about it.I follow you on twitter, BTW…donrlewis22 😉

  4. Hey DonThanks for the kind words, but I guess we disagree pretty strongly on A SERIOUS MAN.Let me address a couple of your comments:First, that the film is one of the Coen Brothers' "quick and dirty" flicks. I would attribute this more so to their comedies than their dramas, but that in itself is what makes their comedies so endearing.I think A SERIOUS MAN is actually one of their most thoughtful and intricate films, particularly in the way the story unfolds and in its thematic bookending.Secondly, you feel that critics who enjoy the film have been unable to narrow down what it is exactly about. To that I argue, films are not essays. They are not arguments. They are experiences. Sometimes, that sinking feeling you get in your gut or conversely that release of endorphins is enough to "make a film worthwhile".As I mentioned in my review, films like SYNECDOCHE NY, MAGNOLIA, KNOWING, and even THE BOX now that I think of it, all deal with similar themes: the tragedy of life, the inevitability of death, concerns regarding the afterlife. Broad topics, for sure. And each of these films can be dissected and have their flaws exposed too. However, each in their own way, including A SERIOUS MAN, have been made in such a way that they do not just state "life's hard", but try to shake us out of our sometimes zombie-esque stupor and encourage us to "do something about it". I believe the Coens achieve this.Thirdly, a main theme of your argument is that you particularly disliked the stoner element. To that I say, as per my previous point, it plays into the 'zombie-stupor' that both Larry and his son walk around with.Lastly, I suggest that while this film is very much about growing up Jewish, it is more so about growing up human.Again, if you didn't find the film intriguing, I can't fault your criticisms. And I'm not sure if I've made my own argument any clearer here in these comments than I did in my review.At the very least, I hope you can (somewhat) see why I feel A SERIOUS MAN is both a great Coen Brothers film, and one of the best films of 2009.Alright, lets keep this discussion going everyone! Nice comments so far!

  5. OK, this might seem a bit pedantic, but perhaps I can turn this discussion into a analysis of “what” the film is about, specifically regarding the ending.I’d like to provide ONE of my interpretations of the film. However, not even I believe this is the definite meaning of the movie. A SERIOUS MAN is intentionally ambiguous. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this explanation.SPOILER ALERT FOR A SERIOUS MANThe film opens with a couple (let’s say, Larry’s ancestors) bringing a curse on their family by killing a man they believe to be a ghost.Now, let’s say that the man they kill is an ancestor of Sy Ableman, the ‘serious man’ of the film’s title. Many years later, Sy Ableman walks into Larry Gopnick’s life, and basically tears it apart. He steals his wife, family and home away from him. He sends letters to the university board encouraging them to not grant Larry tenure. He dies, and since Larry must pay for his funeral, he therefore sends Larry into debt. He haunts Larry’s dreams, beating him up when Larry keeps claiming that he hasn’t done anything, or burying him alive when he fantasises about sleeping with the neighbour.Sy Ableman exists to test Larry; to challenge him to become a serious man. Larry doesn’t understand why he is being punished. He thinks he has lived a good life and doesn’t feel he deserves this treatment. Sy keeps warning Larry of his ways, all the while making life more and more difficult.Is Sy infact a dybbuk sent to haunt Larry? Or a test sent by God? Or just a manifestation of the karmic vibrations of the universe? I dunno.Regardless, Larry fails Sy’s test. To ease his problems, he fudges the mark of his South Korean student and gives him a passing grade. Almost immediately he receives a call from his doctor, who is concerned about his “test results”. Larry is going to die, because he failed his test. His South Korean student complains early in the film of “unjust test results”. Neither he nor Larry understand the meaning of just; they are not serious men.I was reminded of the old joke where a town floods and a man sits on top of his roof as the water rises. A man with a paddle boat comes by and offers him help. The man on the roof declines, saying “God will save me”. Then, as the water rises even more, a man in a helicopter flies overhead offering him help. The man on the roof declines once more saying “God will save me”. The man ends up drowning. He goes to heaven, sees God, and asks “why didn’t you save me?” Then God says, “what are you talking about, I sent a boat and a helicopter!”Larry thinks God has forsaken him. Wrong. He’s testing him. Sy is there the whole time telling him to straighten up and fly right. Larry never does.So, what y'all think?

  6. Simon, Larry's wife was the one who sent the tenure letters.Great theory on God's test. I personally thought the end…SPOILERS…where Larry finds out he has cancer was just one more way of the Coens saying that life has no predictable pattern. He took the money, he was getting along with his wife again, and then that drops on him.

  7. like your ideas, Simon but again….there's no *proof* or better, evidence of any of it in the film. I think that's what I disliked about it the most. While I LOVE films that are open to interpretation, you simply have to give the audience something to work with and I felt "A Serious Man" was just an idle exercise for the Coens. And the scene where Larry takes the money and is "stricken" is just too obvious for as deep and vague as this film tries to be. I mean, really. Nothing in the film has an answer-easy or otherwise- then the ole bad karma thing eases in for the ending? C'mon now. And taking money isn't "evil," it's truly a victimless crime in this scenario especially when we see God's wrath raining down throughout the film. I just think it's a bad film by (sometimes) great filmmakers. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if this was dragged off the trash heap having been written 15-20 years ago. It needed a purpose.And "Magnolia" isn't about tragedy. It's about timing and being in a certain place in a certain time. Sometimes that's tragic and sometimes you're lucky.

  8. SPOILER ALERT FOR A SERIOUS MANFitz – I could have sworn Sy was responsible for the letters. In fact, I believe Larry's wife told him during the bar mitzvah (although she thought he was sending 'nice' letters). BUT, I could be wrong. If we can get a third party to verify, that would be much appreciated.Don – Haha, I guess we're just going to have to agree to disagree. Don't get me wrong, I definitely see your argument, but in the end, I still believe there is plenty to be drawn from the film.Just to address a couple of your points (and I'm not trying to get final word here, just thought I'd clarify my interpretations):1. I don't think taking money is 'evil', nor do I think the Coens paint it that way. Rather, Larry was being tested and being told to believe in something greater than his own problems (not unlike Job, who remained 'a serious man' throughout his own trials). By taking the money, it was as Larry believed he had to take matters into his own hands, and in a way, turned his back on his faith, or at least his morals.SPOILERS FOR MAGNOLIA2. I think we agree on MAGNOLIA, especially on timing and luck etc. However, there is a large element of tragedy in the film, particularly in the way characters are fated to repeat mistakes throughout their life. The ending of the film features many of the characters filled with remorse for the mistakes they have made in their life, and some of them making a concerted effort (we assume) to 'do something' about it (hence my tie in to 'A SERIOUS MAN'.Anyway, thanks for the great discussion guys! If you have any more thoughts/interpretations/complaints, I'd love to hear 'em and talk 'em out!

  9. His wife mentions Sy was writing letters, but yes she didn't know the true content of them 🙂

  10. It's one of those films that you are not quite sure whether to recommend to a friend or not. Yet certainly one of those films you are glad to have seen. I guess that's a cop out. Enjoyed reading the thoughts above.We certainly are led to believe that Sy sent the letters to the tenure board. LOVED the tenure guy leaning in the doorway, man he needed a punch on the nose.

  11. After I saw this movie I was somewhat disturbed by it.I guess not being able to put my finger on exactly what the movie was 'about'irritated me.But when I look back I cant deny that it was a real experience to watch and there were so many good 'bits'in it(the young rabbi's face when the protagonist is telling him about his wifes infidelity!) that it was more than worth the entry fee.When my girlfriend asked me what it was about I answered the movie is about fighting on against problems.When are you supposed to throw in the towel?when does life become too much?I think the Coen bros tried to point out that being righteous does not mean that you are exempt from problems in life.Actually,you are bound to be hit even harder because you feel that you do not deserve it since you have an image of yourself as 'a serious (righteous) man'

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