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A Serious Man


Reviewed by Andrew Holt

Andrew gives this film a B


The Coen Brothers could have scored another masterpiece with “A Serious Man”, an offbeat comedy about a traditional Jewish family living in a Midwest town in the late 60’s. For some reason, though, the duo tinkered with the basic structure of the screenplay which leaves the viewer confused, not only about the possible meaning of the movie, but even how it should be perceived. Aside from this major blunder, the movie does provide entertainment and spiritual intrigue.

Like all Coen Brothers movies – this one they not only wrote and produced, but also directed – it is rife with wonderful characters, comedic absurdity, and phenomenal writing.

The main character, Larry Gopnick, an untenured professor at a small local college in a small unnamed city, has his life fall completely apart within the first 20 minutes of the movie. Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) is abruptly told by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she’s having an affair with Larry’s colleague Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and she wants a divorce. This coincides with Larry being bribed by a failing Korean student, his department head implying that he might not get tenured and discovering that his son is a pothead. Also hovering over Larry’s life is his dysfunctional brother, Arthur, who spends most of his time in the bathroom draining a cist on the back of his neck and the family bank account.

Although Larry has his shortcomings, we care for him as he gets knocked around by life and receives no meaningful support from his Jewish community. Larry tries all avenues that a good Jew in his situation should utilize, especially seeing the Rabbi.

The Coens masterfully present two scenes where Larry visits with Rabbi’s, the first a Junior Rabbi who is sitting in for the senior rabbi.The awkwardness of the conversation between this sad sap Rabbi and an earnest but confused Larry evokes many laughs.

When Larry finally gets the chance to see the Senior Rabbi, all he gets for his troubles is a senseless story about a Jewish dentist who saw Hebrew letters on the teeth of a Goy he treated. A Goy mind you, says the Rabbi.

Larry becomes more confused as Sy, a well-respected member of “the community” is taking his wife right from under him all the while spinning him with this phony pop psychology and constantly hugging Larry and reassuring him that “this is all for the best.”

One other amusing element of the movie is the juxtaposition of this established Jewish community with a rural Midwest town. The humorous tension between Larry and his red neck neighbor, Mr. Brandt, brings only more worries to Larry. In one scene, Larry dreams that Brandt guns down Arthur in the country side; Brandt in his hunting fatigues with his son, after putting the bullet through Arthur, turns to Larry and says to his son, “There’s another Jew. Go ahead and shoot” – classic Coen dark humor.

One could continue on listing the humorous elements of the movie, such as the stark contrast between the religious ideals and that of the lives the flock is actually living – but it is not necessary. Suffice to say, this is a very funny and insightful movie. So, if the Larry Copnick story was the movie unto itself, I think we would have a gem.

Unfortunately, the Coens decided to open the film with a scene circa mid 1800’s in some far off Jewish settlement in Europe. The scene is fable-like involving Larry’s direct descendents. In the scene the wife puts a curse on the family by stabbing a helpful stranger whom she is convinced is a ghostly spirit.

Then we fast-forward to Larry Gopnick and his disastrous year of 1967. Just before the movie ends, the screenplay links back to the opening scene.

Larry receives a phone call from his Doctor stating that the x-rays performed in the opening scene of the movie have come back with problems, this is followed by a tornado coming right through the middle of the town, giving the viewer the impression that everything is going to get blown to hell.

So, even though in the Bar mitzvah scene prior to these final two, we are led to believe that somehow, Larry has navigated through all of this confusion and has found some meaning in his troubles, forget it. He’s doomed. The family is doomed.

Essentially the Coen’s have reduced their movie to an amusing tale about a family that is cursed. Everything in-between conjures up chuckles but is just part of the curse, and lacks any meaning about life as Jewish American in the 1960’s.

Thus, “A Serious Man”, which could have been so much more, with less, is merely entertaining but doesn’t transcend being a quirky comedy.

Ironically, when I watched the special features, the Coen brothers stated that the opening scene really had no meaning. They just thought it would be “cool” to begin the movie with a cartoon-like (their words) scene. Could they really be that sloppy with their creation?


Andrew Holt was born and raised in Manhattan Beach, California. He has 18 years in the radio broadcasting business and is currently in tourism marketing and public relations. He has a weekly blog, at www.theholtstory.com  His favorite movies are The Illusionist, Dead Again, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Sixth Sense. His favorite authors are, J.D. Salinger, Tom Wolfe, Bernard Malamud and John Steinbeck. 

Reader Comments (1)

Loved this movie so much. It gets and A from me.Saw it three times. My husband is friend's with Michael Stulbarg (the star) and it was hard for me to not like it. All other Jews that I know adore this movie. A must see if you have experience pre Bar/Bat Mitzvah stress.

September 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Saslow

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