Home Year 2009 A Serious Man (2009)

A Serious Man (2009)

Exsqueeze me? A baking powder?
Exsqueeze me? A baking powder?

Twitter Plot Summary: Larry Gopnik is a man for whom everything is going wrong, and all at the same time. Of all the luck, eh?

Five Point Summary:

1. Inviting a stranger into the home.
2. Everything is falling apart for him. Poor chap.
3. Denying Abraxas.
4. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
5. Are things on the up? Probably not.

The movies of the Coen Brothers often revel in the mundane and the offbeat, and A Serious Man is no different. Set in the 1950s the story follows Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik, a classic Coen Brothers creation as a man who is put-upon from all sides. His wife is leaving him, he works in a mundane teaching job where he is bribed by his Korean student, and he lacks the ability to stand up for himself in almost every respect. Despite his keen love of mathematics, he’s unable to work out why things are going wrong – they just do, and he’s lost like a toy boat thrown into the abyss by a freak tidal wave. Ever thought your life was heading the wrong way? You’ve got nothing when compared to Larry Gopnik. The man seriously can’t catch a break. Then again he’s fictional, so perhaps that argument isn’t all that watertight…

The film opens with a stand-alone short story that has no link to the main feature other than perhaps a thematic one. Within the film proper Gopnik tells the story of Schrodinger’s Cat to help explain the mathematics behind the story – an explanation that falls on confused and uncomprehending ears. Gopnik then finds himself on the other end of the confusion when he consults with the second rabbi about his quickly unravelling existence. The Rabbi’s parables, offered by The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg, are steeped in religious dogma yet don’t make their point clear – something which the young rabbi clearly needs to work on. There’s the surface level of commentary on the Jewish faith here, but there are numerous layers to it as well. Gopnik denying of Santana’s Abraxas album is both an obvious reference yet delightfully obtuse at the same time.

A delightfully odd couple.
A delightfully odd couple.

As for Gopnik, he’s forced out of his own home by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) shacking up with widowed neighbour Sy Ableman (a wonderfully amusing performance from Fred Melamed) and has to live in a motel room with Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), who has his own gambling problem and issues to contend with. Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Gopnik is clearly a career-defining one, and at the very least put his name out there as somebody to look out for. He somehow manages to noticeably flip between confusion and puzzlement at everything that’s going on around him. The fact all of this takes place in very much a deadpan way is perhaps the least peculiar aspect of the film. Strong performances from everyone else in the cast do no harm.

It’s very Jewish and very 1960s, and it’s easy to describe it as a film where not much really happens beyond a couple of unfortunate incidents, much like the Coen’s other recent effort Burn After Reading. This is entirely to be expected of the Coen Brothers however, and whilst it is unlikely to be marked out as one of their more lauded or notable efforts to the masses (who are in fact completely wrong) it is still a worthy entry into their catalogue.

Score: 4/5

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