A Serious Post

02-OCT-09: The Coen Brother’s A Serious Man

Like much of the Coens’ work, the climax is unexpected and thrilling, confounding and infuriating. The lack of high-profile performers lends an authenticity to the project, making it feel lived-in and real, instead of “Here’s a bunch of our famous friends in a vanity project.” Though never as absurd, A Serious Man is a spiritual cousin to Raising Arizona .

—Tara Thorne, The Coast

It is largely about misery and bad luck, and it’s very funny. Its hero’s first two words must have been oy vey. The Coens, who have a way of following their vision with unwavering consistency, do not flinch from the problems of poor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), which include a wife, son and daughter who cause him misery, a deeply flawed brother-in-law who has taken up residence on the sofa, three rabbis who are no help, and an exhibitionist neighbor who goes heavy on the eye liner and smokes during sex. If you aren’t Jewish when you go into this movie, you may be when you come out.

—Roger Ebert Chicago Sun-Times

Even with its recognizable tropes, there’s an element of ingenuity to “A Serious Man” when situated in the Coen canon. The movie synthesizes their past and present achievements. Recalling the situational comedy of “Burn After Reading” (which itself recalled the situational comedy of “Fargo”), Larry’s problems form a laundry list of insurmountable woes: He grapples with his nagging wife Judith (Sari Lennick) and her patronizing lover Sy (Fred Melamed), desperately tries to communicate with his aimless son (Aaron Wolff) on the brink of his bar mitzvah, dodges threats from a disgruntled student and feebly attempts to help his deadbeat brother (Richard Kind) solve a gambling problem. Though Larry’s troubles are exploited for the sake of the Coens’ prankish tendencies, he perseveres by way of spiritual convictions that play out with unexpected sincerity. Adopting a desperate stare and constant naivete, Larry oozes pathos. As an archaic symbol of the post-World War II nuclear family, he represents a dying breed, recalling Tommy Lee Jones’s resigned stance in “No Country for Old Men.” Thus, “A Serious Man” draws liberally from the Coens’ own work. At once devilishly confounding and mature, it’s unquestionably their most personal movie yet.

—Eric Kohn, IndieWIRE

This movie is utterly assured, personal, serious, sad and very funny.

—Anne Thompson, Thompson on Hollywood

The movie has no stars, few recognizable faces. And unlike so many American films, which cast gentiles in Jewish roles (Imelda Staunton, for example, as the stereotype mother in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, also about suburban Jews in the ’60s), this one actually has ethnic-appropriate casting. The Jews here are sometimes broadly drawn — Larry’s family slurps soup at a decibel level that even th4e Simpsons would find deafening — but they’re fully assimilated,. Nobody says, “Oy vey!” or talks shtick. If people answer a question with a question, the first would be Larry’s plaintive “Why me?” when he seeks legal, emotional or spiritual help, and the second the world’s “Who cares?”

—Richard Corliss, Time

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