Wednesday 29 July 2020

Movie Review: A Serious Man (2009)

A dark comedy, A Serious Man explores the sequential unraveling of an ordinary life.

In a prologue set in ancient Europe, a Jewish couple wonder if they inadvertently invited a dybbuk (a malicious spirit) into their house. 

Fast forward to 1967 in suburban Minnesota. Middle-aged Jewish mathematics Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is waiting to hear if he will be granted tenure. In the meantime, his life starts to fall apart. His wife Judith suddenly announces she is in love with their family friend Sy and wants a divorce. Larry's good-for-nothing brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is outstaying his welcome and eternally occupies the bathroom, antagonizing Larry's daughter Sarah.

His son Danny is approaching his bar mitzvah, but is constantly stoned and whining about the television aerial. At the university, South Korean student Clive demands a better grade then leaves an envelope stuffed with cash on Larry's desk. Larry and Arthur move into a motel, but lawyers, car accidents, anonymous letter-writers, a succession of rabbis and a lustful next-door neighbour will all create more problems.

A low-key effort from Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man taps into Jewish culture with a twist. In terms of narrative, the film is a series of dots tracing the inexplicable downward trajectory of Larry's life, as everything that can go wrong does go wrong with clockwork efficiency. Larry seems to be a decent fellow undeserving of such bad karma, but maybe those were his ancestors in the (otherwise unrelated) prologue, inviting bad spirits into the family's future.

While filled with dry humour and larger than life characters, A Serious Man is also less than the sum of its parts. The Coen's opt for a muted approach in making sense out of misfortune, and with Larry a pretty docile and passive character buffeted by the waves of life, the film gets suspended in one emotional space. An artificially truncated ending, proclaiming worse to come, does not help.

While the plot is reduced to searching for absurdities within the next crisis, the film is always a visual joy. The suburbs in the late 1960s are beautifully captured in the set designs, outfits and Roger Deakins' cinematography, with brown and orange colours dominating.

The understated emotional tone extends to the actors. Michael Stuhlbarg occupies the eye of the storm with even-tempered befuddlement, while the supporting cast is devoid of star names and consigned to caricaturish representations. No one moves past the starting gate in terms of character arcs, but when A Serious Man endures a mean streak of misfortune, avoiding disintegration is perhaps the best that can be expected.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


  1. You were a lot nicer to this than I was. I found it bleak, unfunny, and kind of mean-spirited.

    1. The dry humour did register with me on a couple of occasions, but overall, it's far from the Coen's best efforts.


We welcome reader comments about this post.