Coen Brothers Miss Rather than Hit With 'A Serious Man'

Focus Features

City Pulse | September 28, 2009
Halfway through the Coen Brothers' thinly veiled treatise on the mistreatment of suburban American Jews during the late '60s, arises a question about who the serious man of the film's title might be. Clearly, it must be family man Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), a tenure-seeking math professor, who worries incessantly over his son Danny's (Aaron Wolff) upcoming bar mitzvah and over his adulterous wife's decision to run off with touchy-feely widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). The trouble is that Larry isn't serious enough about his life to lay down any boundaries. He's a grin-and-bear-it type who doesn't even have the wherewithal to throw out his couch-surfing physics professor brother Arthur, or go to his administration when a student bribes him for a passing grade. There isn't as much humor as the filmmakers imagine in watching put-upon Larry sit in meetings with patronizing or unapproachable rabbis, much less in watching a character who is more of a serious doormat than a serious man. Compartmentalized subplots -- like one about a dentist who discovers the words "Help Me" engraved in Hebrew on the back of a white man's teeth -- are left open ended, as if a show of insider's absurdist humor will fill in this gaping wound of a movie.

Over their 25-year career as filmmakers the Coen Brothers have established a hit-or-miss pattern that allows audiences to practically guess the timing of their next flop. A Serious Man is the brothers' 13th film. It comes on the heels of two successful movies -- Burn After Reading (2008) and No Country for Old Men (2007). Before that, the brothers slumped with a duo of lackluster efforts (The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty), that had been preceded by the underrated The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), and the hilarious music tour O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). The pattern points out the brothers' proclivity for taking risks in pushing forward the style of dry dark comedy that they established well with Raising Arizona (1987). It's clear that the Coens are committed to reinvesting profits made on their successes to finance personal visions that would otherwise never see the light of day.

A Serious Man is not an awful movie, and it may well be a fantastic film for the audience that the Coens are speaking to. This is a film made to address, in coded terms, a very personal agenda of reflections and influences during a time in the '60s just before the period of Ang Lee's Woodstock which enabled a cross-cultural catharsis for many thousands of lost souls -- or not. There exists a certain non-ironic unity between the two movies because they are both coming-of-age stories, albeit for different generations of Jewish males caught up is a similar American cultural zeitgeist.

It's not so much that A Serious Man isn't accessible -- it is that. But the film never sets down parameters. There are guffaw-inducing bits of slapstick, but never any sense of which arcane aside or comic tone to believe. Larry's redneck Minnesota neighbor hates Larry from the well of his soul. He's a racist that Larry dreams of confronting but doesn't have the guts to carry out. The neighbor is a mute stereotype who never rises above anything more than a stereotype caricature. Larry's wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is a bad animal paled only by her truly mean-spirited suitor Sy Ableman. Larry is caught between seeking guidance from his religion, and breaking out of his timid mold to actually manage his life, but the filmmakers renege on choosing a bold decision for Larry to carry out. Instead, they substitute a tableau of natural disaster that could be read as an afterthought ending that was designed to mask the absence of the closure that the brothers had in mind but were too afraid to commit to film.

(Focus Features) Rated R. 104 mins. (C) (Two Stars)
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