A Serious Man

A Serious Man 15 (2009)

Dir: Ethan & Joel Coen; Starring: Aaron Wolf, Fred Melamed, Jessica McManus, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick

He tried to be A Serious Man...

A funny but disturbing film? Must be the Coens, then. Let me start by saying I liked this film. I’m not a huge fan of good ol’ Ethan and Joel’s work; I found obligatory student viewing The Big Lebowski underwhelming, and that put me off watching their other films for  quite a while. When I did get round to more, I enjoyed the black comedy and brutal violence of Fargo (but then who isn’t a sucker for Steve Buscemi?); liked the tongue-in-cheek humour and sing-a-long of O Brother, Where Art Thou?; I appreciated Javier Bardem’s psychotic turn in No Country for Old Men; and found Burn After Reading a passable comic farce (I liked it more before I heard it said out loud and thought it was called ‘Burn After Reading’ – a British Rail thriller in which everyone spontaneously combusts thirty minutes outside London: a wry look at our nation’s ridiculous bias towards the capital, playing on Londoners’ fears of leaving the land of plenty).

So, having found the trailer hugely entertaining I finally got round to watching A Serious Man, another obliquely funny film from the Brothers Comically-Grim, this time a semi-autobiographical tale about the luckless Larry Gopnik, whose life becomes unmoored when his wife announces their marriage is over and she now wants to marry one of their self-satisfied acquaintances. From there on in, everything falls apart and in an increasingly desperate state he seeks the advice of his local rabbis.

Like many a Coen Brothers film, you can either read deeper into it or just enjoy it surface level. Has Larry wavered too much away from Judaism? Does he keep telling himself that ‘he tried to be a serious man’ as a way of trying to redefine himself as a righteous Jew as his life spirals  further and further out of his control? Heck, there’s certainly a lot of morality in it (the film opens with a strange, unexplained folk tale on morals and fear, setting the tone of the piece) and yet whilst Larry fights to maintain a grasp on his situation, more bizarre things happen. There are many attempts to link the seemingly disparate events in the film – like Larry’s son being completely off his noggin as he goes through his bar mitzvah echoing his dad’s mental tensions; Larry’s car accident, another simultaneous crash involving his wife’s new ‘friend’, and the Schrödinger’s cat paradox, which I don’t fully understand but I think has something to do with life and death.

It’s one of those films that you perhaps enjoy more on reflection. It isn’t laugh-out-loud funny and doesn’t come off on first viewing as anything particularly amazing. Pretty good, but not amazing. I woke up thinking about it this morning (which perhaps says more about me, I don’t know), and considering the idea that all these little incidents were perhaps made out to be part of a bigger plan, perhaps a divine plan, which would make the apocalyptic ending more understandable. Not that you have to understand it. Who understands life? I sure as hell don’t.


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