I don’t agree with them, but there are a fair number of people who disliked the ending of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. That film seems to be setting you up for one thing, and then after the line “beer leads to more beer,” it goes in a completely different direction. That direction is dark and fatalistic, it suggests a world where hardship and death can strike at any time, and not everyone wants that out of their movies. So if you’re one of those people, the Coens’ 2009 film A Serious Man is a good news/bad news situation: the good news is that A Serious Man does not have that sharp turn right before Act III; the bad news is that A Serious Man is dark and fatalistic all the way through.
Tony-nominated Broadway veteran Michael Stuhlbarg plays a character named Larry Gropnik who lives in Minneapolis in 1967, but never mind that. This is more or less a remake of the Book of Job. Like Job, Larry has it pretty good to start; he’s got a nice suburban home, a wife and two kids, and he’s about to get tenure at the local college where he teaches mathematics. Like Job, he’s about to lose everything, as surely as if God Himself had made a bet with Satan to give it all away. It’s enough to make a guy curse heaven … but like Job, Larry is devout enough that he doesn’t go there easily.
However, the Book of Job is crystal clear compared to this film. This movie opens with a Polish fable about a man who may or may not have been a ghost, and was killed because of it (or maybe not), as an illustration that there are no clear answers even to those problems which present themselves as life-or-death matters. The central question of both the Biblical story and the movie is, “why do horrible things happen to decent people?” but God’s answer is much kinder than the Coens’. Job is eventually rewarded for continuing to be pious in the face of his misfortune; without spoiling anything, Larry is not quite so lucky.
Religion plays a fairly strong role in the movie; Larry seeks the advice of several rabbis about his problems, and it could be argued that his son’s bar mitzvah is the climax of the story. I’m not much of a believer, but I appreciated the way that this film handles religion all the same: the absolute truth of the Bible isn’t the issue as much as its ability to support a person like Larry through cruelly bad fortune. The Coens could be atheists for all I know, but they understand that belief is what matters for Larry and people like him.
This is why the film reminded me so strongly of No Country For Old Men: like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the other film, Larry is trying to make sense of all the things that are happening around him, and can’t do it. The difference is that A Serious Man isn’t trying to be anything but a comedy. Consider Larry’s divorce – his wife’s assertions that “no one is at fault,” even as she repeatedly tries to put all fault upon Larry, aren’t played any way other than absurd.
I liked A Serious Man, mainly because I laughed when it wanted me to laugh, but I did not adore it the way I do many other Coen films. This is because of a common knock on their films that I mentioned in my review of Blood Simple: they seem to hold their characters in contempt. When Larry walks into a scene and all manner of crazy things happen to him – nonsensical requests from his kids, unreasonable demands from his wife, disturbing nonsense from his brother – I didn’t feel like I was laughing in sympathy for Larry. I felt that I was laughing at him just as much as I was laughing at any other character.
Stuhlbarg’s performance doesn’t help much in that area, because I think he’s going too big and trying too hard to play “exasperated.” Even a couple of scenes where he seemed about to break down in tears weren’t right, as though the tears were so over-done as to be comical. It’s impossible for us to know if this was a decision Stuhlbarg made, or if this was the way the Coens wanted the character played all along, but either way I didn’t buy it. I would have preferred to see something along the lines of William H. Macy’s performance in Fargo, more buttoned down and quietly desperate.
Although A Serious Man is shot through with dark comedy, the film isn’t universally negative. After all, two kids were able to come out of a world just like this and become Oscar-winning film directors. As a result there are a couple of moments where it’s suggested that, despite the world being a cruel and random place, we still should strive to be good people. I would have preferred a little more of that message, because as one memorable joke in this movie tells us, it couldn’t hurt.
Reviewed by Mark Young