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A Serious Man (2009)

March 22, 2010

7/10 Pushovers

Not quite the story of my life, but it’s hard to go wrong with the Coens.

A Serious Man is about a Jewish guy in the late ’60s who just can’t catch a break. His wife is leaving him for reasons neither of them can understand, one of his students is trying to bribe him because he won’t give the kid a passing grade, his brother with a gambling problem and a massive sist won’t move out or get a job and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

It all really boils down to watching this guy trying to hold it all together while getting shit on from every direction and, despite his best efforts, receive zero help from everyone around him. No, it’s not much of a pick-me-upper, but thankfully this thing is directed by the Coen brothers instead of, say, Darren Aronofsky (even though Darren Aronofsky’s the man).

Look, I don’t really need to say a whole lot about the Coen brothers because everyone should probably have realized at this point in the history of the world that these cats know what the hell they’re doing. They’re pros, they don’t fuck around, and even when they do fuck around, they do it like pros. Not sure that statement makes perfect sense, but just go with me on this one.

Aside from being total perfectionists, one of the many things that makes the Coen brothers’ movies stand out is their dead-on comedic timing, their sandpaper-with-a-mean-case-of-eczema dry, deadpan sense of humor and the way they make an audience laugh at things that might otherwise compel theaters to start handing out packs of Prozac at the door. There’s a lot of that here and that, folks, is a very good thing. Yeah, A Serious Man is a Debbie Downer, but as much as you feel bad at the guy, it’s hard not to get a kick at how absurd his whole damn life is. Almost gets Seinfeld-ian at times.

So, the writing and technical aspects are solid as usual, but I’ve also yet to see a Coen brothers production where the cast sucks. Pretty sure these guys could make a movie about Nic Cage, Rob Pattinson and Steven Seagal quoting lines from Sex and the City for two hours and the thing would still hit all the right notes, but let’s all continue to hope that theory never gets put to the test.

With that being said, I thought Michael Stuhlbarg (who I never knew existed before this seeing this movie) was really good as our “serious” man, Larry Gopnik. Well, everyone’s good in their respective roles here, but I feel like his performance got kinda overshadowed this year for some reason or other and that right there is a bummer. Granted, Colin Firth and Jeff Bridges did kick ass this year, but props to the dude for getting right into the role and I’m looking forward to seeing more of him.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Coens threw in some pretty choice ’60s tunes in here for good measure, one of which plays a very entertaining role towards the end of the movie and might just be my favorite scene of the whole thing.

So, yeah, I liked A Serious Man, it’s good stuff on a lot of levels, but I think the thing that’s holding it back for me was that I can’t exactly relate to it. It’s not so much that I’m not Jewish and as a result can’t identify with growing up in a Jewish household, it’s more that there was a generational and cultural gap going between my own upbringing as an ’80s baby and not being able to see myself or my own family in that of the Gopnicks. My stepdad on the other hand totally identified with this movie and gained a much greater appreciation for it than I did, and even though it would have been nice to have that connection myself and even though there’s not a whole lot I can do about it without getting a DeLorean, a flux capacitor and a life-altering religious epiphany, there’s still a lot to enjoy.

Not their best movie by any means, the story’s fine, it kinda drags on after a while and the ending is…something else, but hey, it’s the Coen brothers.

Total pros.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010 1:28 am

    Verrry nice review, sir.

    Yeah, being familiar with the Jewish inside-jokes definitely helps one’s enjoyment of this movie (growing up with Jewish friends and attending several bar mitzvah’s helps..)

    Judging by your sense of humor, you’d probably like the book Portnoy’s Complaint. Very funny, very Jewish.

    • March 22, 2010 7:26 am

      I’ve heard of Portnoy’s Complaint, will definitely check it out. Only Philip Roth book I’ve read is American Pastoral, but I effing LOVED that book. Been meaning to read more of his stuff for a while now, and now might be the time. Thanks for the heads up man.

  2. March 22, 2010 1:32 am

    Excellent review Aiden. I totally agree that it’s tough to relate to the characters in the movie. Most of them are unlikable and the main character is a goddamn pushover who does nothing about his situation but complain. The movie was also heavy on Jewish esoteric which made it a bit “out there”

  3. March 22, 2010 5:47 am

    You probably did well to see it at home and not in a packed out cinema. When I caught this last year there were a shed-load of walkouts because this was just so damn pessimistic and bleak. Fred Melamed was about the only uplifting part of the movie! I didn’t mind the directionless ending but overall this film just brought me down. Schmuky Puts! Definitely not their finest hour.

    I also didn’t understand the prologue either…. just bizarro.

    • March 22, 2010 7:27 am

      Yeah, the prologue was quite odd, but I’m guessing that was Larry Gopnick’s ancestor or something. Eh, still weird.

  4. Darren permalink
    March 22, 2010 9:19 am

    I haven’t seen this yet (looking forward to it), but it’ll take some work to top the ending of The Man Who Wasn’t There in the “something else” stakes.

    • March 22, 2010 9:26 am

      Haven’t seen that one in a long time, but from what I remember, that sure was something else.

  5. March 22, 2010 10:46 am

    This is my favorite film of 2009. For me, the film was more about strugling with the idea of bad things happening to good people and less about Jewish life. Sure, that’s a big focus of it, but I don’t think the Coen Brothers are just exclusively focused on sharing their culture.

    So I didn’t have that problem, I totally connected with the idea and just rolled with it. It’s easily my favorite Coen Brothers film and I look forward to watching it yet again.

    • March 22, 2010 10:54 am

      Wow, awesome. Totally understand the whole “bad things happening to good people” vibe, Larry’s a real Job-like figure in that regard. It is a movie you just have to roll with, but still didn’t get the connection that you did. Good movie all the same though, glad you dug it so much.

  6. March 22, 2010 1:43 pm

    “Pretty sure these guys could make a movie about Nic Cage, Rob Pattinson and Steven Seagal quoting lines from Sex and the City for two hours and the thing would still hit all the right notes”

    That might be stretching it

    @ James Blake Ewing — I agree that the Jewyness is less intricate to the story as one may assume from its prevalence, but there is a sort of community amongst the Jews that we don’t find in any sort of culture that really emphasizes just how fucked this guy is.

    There’s a line in the park: “But it’s not something you have to figure out all by yourself. We’re Jews, we have that well of tradition to draw on, to help us understand. When we’re puzzled we have all the stories that have been handed down from people who had the same problems. ”

    Larry is supposed to find solace in his people, and his people are more responsiible for his life-in-shambles than anyone else. His wife leaves him, his rabbi tells him to deal with it, his contemporary is writing disparaging letters to his employer, his God is killing him with cancer (probably). The only person that really offers to help is his goy neighbor, by posturing against an Asian man.

    • March 22, 2010 2:40 pm

      Well said, man. Funny, didn’t really notice that that was the only time someone’s actually got his back. Those goys are alright when they’re not shitting on property lines.

  7. Branden permalink
    March 22, 2010 2:13 pm

    That is probably the same mark that I would give this movie. It’s very niche to Jewish people growing up in the 1960s. Being a black man growing up in the 80s, everything went over my head. I wish that Stuhlbarg got more recognition then the Golden Globe nom. What can you do?

    What the fuck is it with Coen ending? They always make me wanna scream at the screen.

  8. March 22, 2010 2:32 pm

    I loved the ending, in fact this was my favorite movie of last year.

    I completely identified with the whole why-is-this-happening-to-me plotline after having two very shitty years in a row with ’08 & ’09.

    • March 22, 2010 2:33 pm

      Haha. Man, almost sounds like I should be glad I couldn’t relate to this.

      • March 22, 2010 2:36 pm

        Exactly. I’d really feel like hanging myself if I knew this was based on a true story.

      • March 22, 2010 2:38 pm

        Yeah, shit isn’t really looking up for Larry at the end there.

  9. March 22, 2010 2:48 pm

    This movie is the Coen’s take on the Book of Job (with a different ending).

    Like Larry, Job’s faithfulness is tested when everything in his life completely falls apart. Death, famine, etc. But Job is faithful and even though his life is utterly miserable, he still says, “blessed by the name of the Lord.” Where A Serious Man deviates is that Larry ‘slips up’ on his faithfulness. He takes the money from the kid bribing him, and sleeps with his neighbor. Where Job was rewarded in the end with a new family, riches, etc., Larry gets the ominous call from the doctor and his son is about to be mowed over by a tornado.

    I think that is what the Coens were trying to say.

    • March 22, 2010 2:52 pm

      Yeah, definitely got the Job allusion and that’s a good point about the difference in endings between Job and Larry. Thought that scene of Larry knocking boots with his neighbor was a dream though. Either way, dude’s life sucked ass.

  10. March 22, 2010 11:50 pm

    Liked the review, but I was kinda disappointed you didn’t like it because you couldn’t identify with the generation. However, I think I liked it more than I should have because I identify with the constant shitstorm of badluck he has. So…

  11. March 27, 2010 2:50 am

    Lovely review, though I seemed to like it even more than you did. I totally agree, though — Stuhlbarg should have gotten more buzz for this. He totally should have gotten a nomination, at least that. It’s one of the best movies of 2009, I think.

    And this here cracked me up:
    ‘Pretty sure these guys could make a movie about Nic Cage, Rob Pattinson and Steven Seagal quoting lines from Sex and the City for two hours and the thing would still hit all the right notes.’


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