There's a strange fascination surrounding the Coen brothers' newest movie, A Serious Man. It's needlessly convoluted at times, but simple enough to understand the gist of what is going on. It doesn't seem to be about anything, but you get the feeling there's a lot brewing under the surface. A dark comedy in theory, but more a tonal experiment than anything else, A Serious Man shoots high. Although I am recommending it, it's one of the weaker Coen brothers movies and doesn't quite seem to reach those lofty goals it set for itself.
Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a Jewish professor of physics at a local college. He bases his life around Judaism and tries to be a good person, but when we meet him, everything begins to fall apart. His wife wants a divorce, his kids steal money from him to buy drugs, he gets in a car accident, his brother is in trouble with the law, his neighbor is building a boathouse that stretches over into his property, he is having money problems, he is being threatened with a lawsuit by one of his students who believes his F on the midterm was unwarranted (too much math he says--it's supposed to be physics, not math!), and it looks like he may not be getting the tenure he so desires. To top it all off, he has unpaid fees from a record club he was unaware he was even a member of.
And that's about it. The goal of the film is to dive into this man's head and watch it break apart for an hour and 45 minutes. It's certainly not a new concept, but nevertheless, it becomes fascinating to watch as Larry slips even deeper into an emotional distress most of us will never experience. As things continually spiral downwards, so does he, distraught by the never ending pile up of unimaginable events. Some may seem minor in comparison to others, but when all are stacked together simultaneously, it becomes a burden and the Coen brothers do a great job of making us sympathize with this broken soul.
The problem is that it's supposed to be a comedy, albeit a dark one, but a comedy nonetheless. Too bad it is rarely funny. The predicament with some of the Coen brothers' films, especially similar dark comedies like last year's Burn After Reading (which I did not take a liking to) is that the humor is shrouded in a cloud of depression and it's very hard to make light of things such as death and destruction. Other times, the humor is very subtle, so subtle that it sometimes feels non-existent. There were moments when I wasn't even aware a joke was happening until the laughter began, and even then it was usually only a few people. For instance, the side of the school bus that picks up Larry's children is emblazoned with Hebrew letters. Apparently, if judging by audience reaction, this was supposed to be funny. It wasn't. Even the jokes that aren't subtle mostly don't work, like in an early scene when a doctor says to Larry, "You're in good health," as he lights up a cigarette. I laughed a few times, but those instances are far outweighed by the many times I was supposed to, but didn't.
Some of the jokes served a thematic purpose, but too many are stale and overused, which practically negate the prevalent themes. One scene depicts a rabbi as he tells Larry a story. Once he gets to the end, he abruptly stops, just shy of the big conclusion, inducing a strange look from Larry and a laugh from the audience. You could argue that this serves as a parallelism, showing that Larry is confused with life and unable to find an ending to his story of emotional declination, but all I saw was a joke that's been used too many times in too many other movies.
Naturally, the worst script in the world could be adapted by the Coen brothers and they would still somehow make it visually exciting. Despite my squabbles with much of A Serious Man, it's hard not to admire its stunning direction, which ranks among the best I've seen this year. The Coen's frame shots so beautifully and implement canted camera angles so effortlessly that one tends to revel in the film's artistry despite its morbid tone. To make such a dark movie so beautiful is difficult and the Coen brothers have succeeded beyond expectations and deserve to be nominated for an Oscar.
Like their Best Picture winner, No Country for Old Men, this film is a bit confusing. Though not to the same extent, it is still not an easy pill to swallow. Much like that aforementioned film, I get the feeling lots of themes are being presented here, but are explored with such mystery and subtlety that I wasn't able to spot them all in one viewing. Also like No Country for Old Men, this film demands a second viewing, but then again, that movie was vastly superior to this one. As soon as the credits rolled on No Country for Old Men, I knew I absolutely had to see it again and did soon after, gaining a better understanding of its complicated themes. I just can't see myself doing that with A Serious Man. In fact, were it not for the lavish direction, I'm not sure this would be worth seeing at all.
Being a Coen brothers film, I'm sure I'll be in the minority by not praising every inch of A Serious Man, but I appreciate their work too much to relegate myself to such behavior. Though not a bad picture (remember, I am recommending it), it can't match up to some of their best films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There, or even The Big Lebowski. In a way, I feel like it's just disappointment stemming from the high expectations we've all bestowed upon the talented duo. But conversely, I feel like a great effort was spent on the look of the film while the somewhat uneven story fell to the wayside. It's still worth seeing, but you wouldn't be hurting yourself by just staying in and renting Fargo instead.
A Serious Man receives 3/5