Notes on ‘A Serious Man’

October 20th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

(this review originally posted on

There is a man in the land of Minnesota, whose name was Lawrence Gopnick; and that man was a serious man who feared God and shunned evil.  However, there exists The Uncertainty Principle by which the world works.  This principle confirms, through mathematics, we can never really know what is going on.  And for our protagonist, Larry Gopnick, he will never understand what is going in his life. He is being tested, or perhaps worse, there is some sort of bet going on between Satan and God to test the loyalty of this once pious man, this man who claims to be “trying to be a serious man.”

Without telling you too much of this plot, I can say that Mr. Gopnick (played by the relatively unknown but very talented Michael Stuhlbarg) is a man whose life is unraveling.  Quickly.  He is blind-sided by an unhappy wife, he has children and a neighbor who all basically ignore him unless they need something from him and his brother Arthur (played by Richard Kind) is sleeping on his couch, but practically living in his bathroom.

Larry searches for answers.  He searches through the counsel of his attorney; he seeks out three different rabbis, one of which is too busy “thinking” in order to help him.  The other rabbis offer very little aside from terrible analogies that ask Larry to “look at the parking lot” and to “think of the goy and his teeth.”  Both ‘parables’ are hysterical in their intangible logic.

As Larry’s life begins to unravel it becomes dizzying.  I can think specifically in one scene where the father of a failing student confronts Larry in his driveway.  The neighbor tries to get involved and Larry needs to shoo him away.  His son comes rushing by, sprinting into the house and Larry follows him in where his daughter is yelling at him immediately, his brother calls from the bathroom and his wife berates him. This calm man has a swarm of angry hornets around him and he can’t do anything but sweat.

The masterful direction is seen at its utmost in these moments.  While the world is spinning out of control, the men who have created this world never let it slip away. They always know exactly what they are showing the audience and what chaos they are creating.  It’s the sort of control that Larry Gopnick could never obtain in his own life.

There are similarities from this story to the actual life of the Coens.  The Coen’s father was a professor, like Larry, and they were raised in a Jewish area in the suburbs of Minnesota where the film takes place.  But the similarities end there.  Everything else is more closely related to story of Job.

Ethan Coen would tell you that “this is not that (story),” and while the similarities are too obvious to ignore, Ethan is right. Job was the story of man whose faith was being tested. “A Serious Man” is the story of a man who isn’t being tested, but whose world is simply collapsing, which is an even greater tragedy. This isn’t a test, this is his life! And, unlike his Old Testament counterpart, Larry Gopnick will not get any answers in the end.  God will not be speaking through the storm when it crashes on Larry’s horizon.  God will not restore Larry’s riches and give him another 140 years to live.  Why would Larry accept them?

This is the sort of dramatic comedy I enjoy. The film is like the rabbi’s ‘parable’ of the goy’s teeth. Superficially it is exactly what a story should be; it is amusing, entertaining and funny. Then if you think about it, if dig into the complex subtext of the story, there is more.

*special side note: I’m thrilled to have Deakins back with the Coen’s.  He is a master cinematographer that has set a bar to which all others should aspire. Welcome home.

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