A Serious Man: The Coens’ Newest is Seriously Good

A Serious Man, which was criminally slept on and under-released, brings to mind the greatest films of the Coen Brothers’ past. It’s their funniest since The Big Lebowski and their most challenging since Barton Fink– and when you’re referring to the best filmmakers of their generation and comparing this film to two of their greatest, you know that this is truly something special. From its opening parable to the Job-like suffering of the main character Larry Gopnik to the haunting final images, The Coens tackle religion, family, and their usual subject of ethics, and they never take a misstep. Add it to the shelf like it’s not a big deal: the Coens have dropped yet ANOTHER classic.

We begin with a parable about a 19th century Eastern European couple who encounter a man they hear died three years ago who stops in during a snowstorm for some soup. The dialogue is entirely in Yiddish, and I won’t spoil what happens, but its message is ambiguous, leaving you to do what the Coen Brothers love to make audiences do: think. Then, we meet physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) and we discover his various crises. His wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so she can marry family friend Sy Ableman (the hysterical Fred Melamed). His son smokes pot, his daughter wants plastic surgery, his brother (Richard Kind) lives on his couch and constantly needs his ear drained, and his student who unsuccessfully bribed him is now complaining to the tenure committee, attempting to ruin his career. Through the film, he visits a number of rabbis, trying to figure out the meaning of his suffering and consequently the meaning of life.

To discuss the plot points of this film or any of the running gags and their execution would be tantamount to denying the will of God. I can divulge that the Coens are here at the top of their game in dialogue, visuals, performance… pretty much anything you want from a film is here. It’s also their most serious discussion of religion to date. It doesn’t keep the film from being funny– truth be told, there are few films this year that made me laugh harder– but when your body of work is devoted to the randomness of the world, and how morals seem to be relative, and good guys sometimes pay and bad guys sometimes get away, it’s interesting to see the subject of a higher power be discussed so frankly. Here, the implications are pretty heavy, and I was left absolutely in a daze once the end credits began rolling. The final image will shock you.

Everyone does terrific work in this film, but special note must be made of Michael Stuhlbarg, a veteran of the New York stage, who does fantastic work embodying an instant classic Coen Brothers character. Some have accused this film of being “too Jewish,” making it less accessible for those who have not lived the Jewish experience. While I worked at a Jewish Community Alliance for the better part of my teenage years and have some familiarity with the religion, I never once felt that the film was somehow limited by religious specificity. Anyone who’s wondered what it all means will find truth here. Anyone who’s ever felt like a higher power was picking on them will find truth here. Anyone who’s ever felt like the religious leaders aren’t truly providing the guidance you’re hoping to receive will find truth here. It’s a film about the absurdity of attempting to understand what God’s intentions are, and the difficult task of attempting to live by what you believe is “right.” No one moralizes better than the Coens, and no one in their generation has written sharper scripts or created more technically perfect films. With A Serious Man, they prove once again that they are no joke.

~ by russellhainline on February 1, 2010.

One Response to “A Serious Man: The Coens’ Newest is Seriously Good”

  1. […] 9 9. Robert Richardson- Inglourious Basterds 8. Steve Yedlin- The Brothers Bloom 7. Roger Deakins- A Serious Man 6. Larry Fong- Watchmen 5. Dion Beebe- Nine 4. Nicola Pecorini- The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus […]

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