A Serious Man

A Serious Man

2009, R, 105 min. Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Aaron Wolff, Sari Lennick, Jessica McManus, Adam Arkin, Alan Mandell, Amy Landecker.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 16, 2009

Embrace paradox; accept life’s mysteries: These are some of the things that serious men learn. God owes us bubkes in the way of answers. With A Serious Man, the Coen brothers have made one of their best and most personal movies. It is rich with ideas and contemplations and packed with the sort of existential jokes that tickle the Coen boys so. Perhaps A Serious Man is the Coens’ boys-to-men moment – the film in which becoming a mensch is the protagonist’s goal rather than scoring money, kidnapping a baby, retrieving one’s pissed-upon rug, or any number of things that have driven Coen characters in the past. The setting of the film echoes the Minneapolis suburb of the Coen brothers’ youth, circa 1967, and captures with perfection the sound and the look of Jewish-American culture of that period. As for narrative structure, A Serious Man is as much the biblical story of Job as O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a Homeric odyssey. Larry Gopnik (stage actor Stuhlbarg), a university professor and family man, is the story’s de facto Job, to whom a plague of troubles comes. The litany of Larry’s adversities would gobble up the remaining space on this page and spoil their impact for the viewer; the troubles come in rapid succession and cover the gamut from personal disturbances to professional threats and inscrutable annoyances. They all, in their way, are steeped in the same kind of convoluted logic used by the Columbia Record Club representative who keeps calling for payments to a club that the Gopniks have inadvertently joined by not actively declining membership. Actions have consequences, we are told, although it seems that inaction can mess you up, too. Such quandaries are older than Judaism, an idea set forth in the film’s preamble, which is set in a Jewish shtetl in the Old World and tells an ambiguous Yiddish folk tale of the Coens’ own imaginary fabrication. The vignette’s moral can be interpreted as meaning that Larry’s iniquities are foretold and nothing can be done to halt their occurrences or, instead, that destiny is nonexistent and judgment calls and the exercise of free will are all we have to guide us through life’s vicissitudes. A Serious Man has plenty to keep avid Coenheads engaged through many viewings. Regular Coen collaborators such as cinematographer Roger Deakins and music composer Carter Burwell add extra clarity and precision to the images and soundtrack. (You’ll never again hear Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow without thinking of this movie.) Essential too is the Coens’ casting of little-known but vaguely familiar actors. The absence of stars helps reframe our expectations of the characters and what might occur. Unpredictability is the hallmark of A Serious Man. Its advice? Receive with simplicity everything that happens.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Joel Coen Films
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Joel Coen's stark and silvery take on the Bard's revenger

Josh Kupecki, Dec. 24, 2021

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen brothers head West, but it's a bumpy ride

Marjorie Baumgarten, Nov. 16, 2018

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
All That Breathes
The struggle by three men to save the endangered black kite

March 31, 2023

SXSW Film Review: <i>Joy Ride</i>
Film Review: Joy Ride
Groundbreaking comedy doesn't break the raunchy mold

March 19, 2023


A Serious Man, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Aaron Wolff, Sari Lennick, Jessica McManus, Adam Arkin, Alan Mandell, Amy Landecker

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle