A Serious Man (2009)

Focus Features
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” –Socrates

“I think, therefore I am. “ –Descartes

“I am, I said.” –Diamond

They say what separates us from the animals is our ability to reason. Or is it our ability to accessorize? I forget. Either way, as humans, we are both burdened and blessed with the power of perception, of thought and analysis, and of the ability to comprehend who and what we are.

This is not always such a great thing.

Many movies have been made about the meaning of life and man’s search for it. Monty Python, in fact, made a movie called, simply, The Meaning of Life. Several plots have revolved around a character who goes out in search of meaning in the world, in hopes of then, in turn, finding meaning in his own life.

And then there’s Larry Gopnick (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) in A Serious Man. Larry is a Jewish physics professor in suburban Minnesota in 1967, raising two teenagers and living with a wife who’s about to leave him. His world starts, ever so slowly, to crumble around him, and as things go from bad to worse, he starts to wonder what it all means. Why have these things happened to him? Why was he chosen? Why? Unfortunately, his search for answers is as successful as his lame attempts to make things right.

A Serious Man is a Coen Brothers film. Which means there’s nothing about it that will run to the ordinary or to the expected. And, as you would expect from an unexpected meaning-of-life Coen Brothers movie, A Serious Man is all at once simple and complex. As we watch Larry’s life spiral out of control, we realize that he doesn’t, for one moment, attempt to grab the reins. As he sits and wonders aloud about why such terrible things are happening, we are frustrated by his inability to act on his own behalf to fix things. And, mostly, we see how chaos will breed chaos in a world where you abandon control of the one thing you own: your path. This is a darkly funny film about a deeply philosophical idea: if you are a passive observer to your own life, it will not only pass you by, but it will destroy you.

A Serious Man is possibly the most personal of all the Coen films, as they have returned to their roots, both personally and professionally. The film is set in suburban Minnesota in the late 1960s, where they grew up. Joel and Ethan Coen know what it is to grow up Jewish in the Midwest, and that knowledge and understanding provides the central texture of this film, as the film unabashedly embraces the culture and social rituals of the faith.

Stylistically, it also harkens back to one of their earliest and best films, Barton Fink, with its slow and steady pacing, dark humor and conflicted protagonist.

But A Serious Man doesn’t have Barton Fink’s twisty-turny plotline, nor its surrealistic style and visual eccentricities. Much like their last film, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man seems to be without the visual flair and style that has become the Coen trademark. While the acting is, as usual, first-rate, particularly by Stuhlbarg, none of the other cinematic elements stand out, which leaves me ever so slightly disappointed.

But what disappointed me the most was the fact that I was supposed to like a guy who was just so unwilling to help himself. Now the Coens have given us unlikable characters before, but they have all been either too dumb, too mean or too violent to fully embrace. Larry Gopnick is just pathetic. I just can’t root for a guy who sits back and lets life happen TO him, instead of with him. His grand search for meaning is instead a general sense of wondering of why bad things are happening to him, even though nearly every bad circumstance of his life could have been avoided if he had been more of an active participant in his own existence. Life is what we make of it, and, for Larry Gopnick, life sucks.