A Serious Man (Ethan Coen; Joel Coen, 2009)

“Please, accept the mystery”


Her name is Rio and she dances on the plane. No she doesn’t. I speak of the Rio Cinema in Dalston where I viewed the Coen Brother’s latest movie. The Guardian tells me it is ‘magnificent’ while Dan Jolin in Empire gives it five stars – even Sight and Sound makes it film of the month as Michael Atkinson expands on the Richard Kind’s performance by telling us about his ‘magnificent’ performance. I was quite excited to watch this. I remember a similar hype around Burn After Reading – the star-studded vehicle following the Oscar winning No Country for Old Men. But I never watched it due to the not-as-enthusiastic-reviews of the aforementioned film. I knew it was about Jewish-ness (Woody Allen links maybe?) and, judging from the trailer, a comedy … it was not like Woody Allen and was not as funny as I anticipated, but thats not to say I thought it was bad because it was a pleasure to be so close to this personal touch of Ethan and Joel Coen.


The film begins with a parable: A rational man brings back a man to his house – a man who his wife is positive was killed months prior. The man walks in and is clearly not dead, os the rational mans wife is convinced he is a dybbuk – a possessed spirit – and, out of nowhere, she stabs the potential-dybbuk. The man asks – ‘now who is possessed?’ and leaves. I assume, this small analogy, shows how peoples actions dictate how evil they are – whether he was evil or not is neither here nor there, he helped the rational man – but the wife on the other hand, for no real, justified reason, sought it neccessary to stab him making her the evil one in the story. Actions dictate your character – not the events that surround you.

Obviously, this is an anology for the rest of the film. Poor old Larry Guptnik (Stuhlbarg) has, what we believe, every conceivable problem happen to him: his wife wants a divorce, his teenagers are selfish (much like any teenager really), he gets involved in a car accident, etc The list goes on. So he wants answers – he knows the question: what do you do if you lose (pretty much) every thing? He asks a range of Rabbi’s and the comment on their assistance is ‘struggling’ at best. I am forced to recall Ricky Gervais’ view on comedy – whereby he felt that Andy Millman in extras had to reach rock bottom before he could reign supreme at the end of the Christmas Special of Extras. Larry hits rock bottom. He feels let down. He feels as if God has let him down. Larry Gopnik wants to know how life can get better.

His son plays an interesting parallel as he struggles to find a music-player that was taken by a teacher so he can pay-off a bully. I would assume the link here is that the bully Larry faces is life. The film climaxes at the bar mitzvah of Larry’s Son, Danny. Larry has tried in vain to meet with the head Rabbi and fails, while his son is granted the privilege opportunity to meet him – the head Rabbi hands Danny his music player back. Obviously, as Larry never meets the Rabbi, his ‘life’ is not returned to normal.

The film begins and ends with a bribe – a student of Larry’s, a Korean lad called Clive – the whole film, Larry denies this bribe, trying hard to make sure it is dealt with. But alas, the envelope of money sits on his desk.

[Spoiler] Then comes the incredible finale as everything that has happened, ultimately, affects Larry into changing his morals. The whole film, you see Larry brewing and about to blow a gasket. You feel as if the film has ended as Larry is informed that he may just get his tenure, his wife may love him still, his brother – an amazing performance from Richard Kind – tells Larry how lucky he is. You think that we have seen the storm of Larry’s life pass … but alas, he gets a $3000 bill and, he cracks and takes the bribe. At the same moment a storm moves towards his son and his classmates.

Referring back to Gervais’ thought on making someone hit rock bottom before raising them up, in this case, Larry hits rock bottom and tries to make sense of it all. He never does but, eventually, the pressure gets too much and he changes his moral. He chooses to end his ‘seriousness’ of life and decides to, rationally, accept the bribe – when the reality is, he doesn’t see the wood through the trees. His brother is right – he has so much going for him, but he doesn’t see it.

I throughly enjoyed this movie. It is set in 1967 and therefore sets the stage for a potential deconstruction of the nuclear family, a possibility Dan Jolin mentions in Empire but I would disagree. Merely a parable – the whole ‘grass is greener on the other side’ story told in Coen-style. No envy on Larry’s part – envy seen as sin by Jews (I assume), merely a frustration that – to stretch out the use of the aforementioned proverb – Larry feels why is his grass not as green as others? Reality is, we all feel this frustration when sh*t happens and it is – as the parable at the start tells us – down to our actions in the face of these events that determine who we are.

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