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A Serious Man (2009)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Is the film worth your time?

Have you had those times when nothing in life seems to fit? Times that you want the formula for how things work so you can try to fix them? A Serious Man is about that. But there’s more: watching the film puts you in that position in relation to the film itself. It works. By not connecting all the dots in the film, by throwing new characters at us with little or no explanation, by leaving questions unanswered and plot points unresolved, the film extends the experience of disorientation from the main character to the audience. As we see Larry Gopnik wrestle with life questions and wonder why God withholds answers, we have questions and wonder why the filmmakers have withheld answers. As Larry feels boxed into life situations, we feel boxed in. As Larry yearns for resolution, we yearn for resolution. In the process, we listen in as Larry searches for answers and support by going to Rabbis and lawyers — and his own dreams.

How do we know what the state of our life really is? What is the solution to angst about our uncertain future — and our uncertain present? How can we be sure of the answers we think we have? How certain must we be in order to live a life of faith and comfort? Is God trying to tell us something through our circumstances? Does God owe us an explanation for the bad things in our lives? A Serious Man takes us into these questions with humor, wonder, confusion, and candor, wryly echoing the book of Ecclesiastes’ sense that, even in the confusion, God is good and there is beauty to find — at least, beauty to find if we approach life with perspectives of simplicity, faith, and goodness. In his lead performance, Michael Stuhlbarg superbly captures the dull confusion and biting torment of a life on the edge of falling apart. The Coens’ screenplay and filmcraft are fascinatingly multi-layered, with themes and insights mirrored obliquely in the situations and perspectives of both major and minor characters.

For all that it does well, A Serious Man is for a limited audience that is willing to go in without traditional notions as to a film having satisfying character explanations and a clear ending. At times, characters make questionable decisions for which, to understand them in the context of the film, you may have to withhold judgment and instead ask how the decisions tie to other elements in the film. It’s best to watch the film with friends that like to discuss a film for a while after — mind you, not with those that “discuss” by pointing out all the things they didn’t like and how they would fix the film, but with those that take the film as it is and consider the territory and questions explored by the film. Oh, and watch the credits to the very end.

Larry Gopnik, a family man and a physics professor, is searching for answers. His life has become a confused, mixed-up, turned around mess. From all different sides, he feels boxed in. Wife. Kids. Students. Neighbors. The tenure committee. He can’t understand what’s going on or why, and it seems he’s being washed along by circumstances with little choice in the matters of his life. Being a man of faith, he turns to the rabbis at his synagogue. Being a man of physics, he seeks the formula that will make all the elements align. In his searching and his travails, Larry wrestles with the mystery of how these two — faith and physics — fit together. Running time: 106 min.

Larry’s wife has relationship with another man. His son smokes marijuana. From a distance, he sees a woman sunbathing nude. There is strong language throughout the film, including by teenagers. There is a stylized, no-nudity sex scene. Three scenes of violence, two of them with blood.

  • Director: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
  • Screenplay: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
  • Leads: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolff, Jessica McManus
  • Cinematography: Roger Deakins
  • Music: Carter Burwell

Before you click on the review links below, let me alert you that, because A Serious Man is an enigmatic film, the reviews are all over the map in terms of what they saw in the film, what they found of value in the film, and — most importantly — what they reveal about the film (i.e., spoilers). Consider watching the film first, and then perusing the reviews as you ponder what you saw. That said, I find the review at Crosswalk to be the most useful, though it, too, touches on spoilers in a minor way.

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