Do you remember the movie Stranger Than Fiction? There’s a scene where Dustin Hoffman explains to Will Ferrell the difference between comedy and tragedy and has him tally up events that would fit into either genre. The Coen Brother’s new film, A Serious Man, seems to live this debate as I can’t really tell if it’s a dark comedy depicting tragic events or a tragedy with comedic characters. Comedy and tragedy aside, you also have to ask at the end of the day if it’s even “good.”
Is it good? That’s where our debate really gets interesting. I saw this movie over a week ago and I still don’t feel qualified to give you an answer. So let’s just start at the beginning.
A Jewish husband with a glorious beard makes his way through the snow and finds his wife at home. After a brief conversation, they realize the man the husband has invited over, as payment for a good deed, has in fact already died. Yet this man knocks on their door, enters their home, and soon the Jewish wife stabs the “Dybbuk” (Yiddish word meaning a soul that has escaped from Gehenna [hell]), setting off a chain of catastrophic events.
Cut to mid-60’s suburbia. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg) is a physics professor whose brain and chalk-laden fingers move faster than his students can keep up with. One day, in his office, a foreign student offers him money to change his mid-term from a failing grade to a passing one and leaves before Larry can return the money. It seems that from this instance forward, nothing goes right for Larry: his wife wants to leave him for an eerily calm and pretentious man; his son uses drugs while attending Hebrew school; his brother won’t let his daughter use the bathroom because he’s constantly busy draining a cyst; his neighbor doesn’t respect property lines; his tenureship at work is in jeopardy; and the damn antenna on his roof won’t capture his son’s favorite television show (to name a few things going wrong for Larry). After being crapped on so heavily by the people in his life, he needs to seek counsel from three rabbis and a lawyer, who each give him a different view on what it takes to be a Mensch.
As Larry Gopkin, Michael Stuhlberg is simply excellent. Every scene reveals another layer of Larry, and while most actors would read the Coen’s screenplay and see a man that has every right to be a whiner, Stuhlberg adds enough complexity and despair to the character that lets us feel sorry for him. Like many other Coen characters, the problems just keep piling for Larry, but unlike most of the characters in Coen-lore, Stuhlberg instills a layer of real humanity in Larry that helps us connect with him (whereas its harder to connect with “The Dude” in Big Lebowski or Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There when things go wrong for them). What makes Stuhlberg’s performance more noteworthy is that he isn’t very heavily supported. I kept waiting to see an extra layer to Richard Kind’s Arthur character or Amy Landecker’s provocative Mrs. Samsky, but it just never came. It really has equally to do with their performances as it does with the Coen’s writing. This is a character study through and through, so don’t expect to get attached to any of the characters besides Larry.
The look of the film is understandably bleak. It’s also wholly unoriginal — oh look, the suburbs suck . . . Wow. I have to fault the Coen’s for not digging deeper with the look and feel of the film. I also have to question some of the stylized choices they made. After awhile, it’s hard to distinguish between Larry’s dreams and his reality, which (don’t get me wrong) is a good thing because it plays into the dark feel that keeps settling over the film and blends the real with the surreal wonderfully. However, it also takes away from the actual danger and winks too much at itself. Again, whether the film is a comedy or a tragedy is up for debate.
I’ll also touch on the ending without spoiling it. If you were unsatisfied by the ambiguous ending of No Country for Old Men then prepare yourself for an even more abrupt ending, except worse. At least No Country gave us some explanation as to what happened. A Serious Man ends as the drama is heightened to its absolute climax, which ultimately takes away from the experience; imagine if No Country had ended with the shot of Josh Brolin jumping out his hotel window the first time he and Javier Bardem have their first fight, that’s kind of what the ending of A Serious Man is like. It doesn’t just cheat you out of seeing the good stuff, it’s also confusing because it tries to “mean” more than it actually is.
Upon seeing this movie, many people will ask “what does it mean” afterward — I had that very same conversation with a fellow critic on my way to the train. Ultimately, though, as soon as I got on the train and was by myself it dawned on me that this movie probably does have some theological significance; except, I just don’t care.
Upside: The lead performance is very strong; the humor is constant and subtle; the Coens do a nice job of weaving the real and surreal.
Downside: There is no ending; the supporting performances are a little too shallow; the film’s structure is sloppy.
On the side: This is one of the Coen’s most personal film as they, too, had experiences with Hebrew school and falling out of love with religion (hence the fact that they both married very non-Jewish women — See: Frances McDormand).