The latest offering from the Coen Brothers could not be more different to their prior effort Burn After Reading. Feeling far more personal than their previous works, A Serious Man doesn’t feel like a Coen Brothers film; but that is by no means to its detriment. Instead, A Serious Man feels like an altogether more mature work, with the Coens moving away from the often over stylised and far too self-aware films that have made them so popular with cult viewers.
Larry Gopnick, in a modern day allegory of the Biblical Job, is going through a lot. His wife is leaving him, whilst using his money for her divorce lawyer; he has now been forced to live in a motel (dispiritingly named ‘The Jolly Roger’), and one of his physics students is threatening to sue him unless he is given a passing grade, coupled with his detached and often selfish children and an ailing brother, Larry is understandably feeling despondent.
A Serious Man essentially explores mans relationship with God, as Larry questions why he is going through such tribulations, and how he should act in response. We see Larry visit Rabbi’s in the hope of finding an answer which seems impossible to provide, yet it is important to note A Serious Man never judges the religion Larry is seeking an answer from, instead presenting such problems as part of the human condition; merely something that is experienced by all at some point.
Despite being steeped in Judaism, and thus often using terms secular audiences may be unfamilar with, the film remains accessible throughout, largely due to the entirely empathetic performance from Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry. In lesser hands, Larry’s ineptitude and acceptance of his wife’s treatment could have been grating, but Stuhlbarg ensures that Larry is likeable throughout, evoking a real feeling of affinity from its audience.
A Serious Man is a film that requires little from its audience, almost creating a passivity in the viewer, as Larry’s life unravels, yet this should not be read as a criticism; here the audience is merely the observer, invited to watch as Larry is forced to undergo ever emotionally taxing predicaments. Ultimately, A Serious Man, far from being the depressive viewing its subject matter suggests, is a film that invites its audience to reflect upon the ineffectuality of man.