Larry Gopnik’s life is, like, really stressful right now. His wife is leaving him for a real jerk; he’s up for tenure and probably isn’t going to get it; his stoner, troublemaking son is about to be bar mitzvah; his indignantly superficial daughter wants a nose job; his brother keeps getting arrested and has nowhere to live; he’s having money problems.
“A Serious Man” — the Coen brothers’ latest pseudo-drama-comedy thing — chronicles Larry’s dire circumstances in order to explore karma, god, the unexplained and the human instinct to impose meaning on random events.
By design, the film doesn’t let the audience get a grip on exactly what “A Serious Man” is supposed to be. The opening scene throws you off, as it’s completely separate from the rest of the plot in characters, location and time. Additionally, the film vacillates between hyper-realism (too-close-for-comfort cinematography, banal storylines about a Jewish elementary school) and farce (a lawyer claims he has the answer to all Larry’s problems … right before he has a heart attack).
Toward the end of the film, Larry (impressively played by Michael Stuhlbarg) asks his rabbi about God: “Why does He make us feel the questions, if He isn’t going to give us the answers?” The (rather smug) meta-commentary is obvious — consider the Coen brothers a figure for God, and Larry is asserting the intent of the movie: the audience must empathize with Larry’s struggles, feel frustrated by the lack of resolution and then analyze why they feel that way.
The problem with the film is the audience does not, in fact, *feel* the questions. The plots are interesting enough, but the Coens reiterate early and often to “accept the mystery.” No one expects the plot to resolve itself, so it’s hard to get too invested. The Coens delight in leaving things unresolved, and the ending is clever and beautiful, but for a movie about uncertainty, the obvious (lack of) conclusion doesn’t pack much of a punch.
“A Serious Man” is at its best when it allows itself to stay grounded long enough to emotionally resonate. A scene at the pool, where Larry’s struggling brother (Richard Kind) finally breaks down, is refreshingly profound.
For the most part, though, the film is a philosophical investigation more than a movie. The ending isn’t about what makes sense for the characters — it’s about exploring whether actions truly have consequences. And maybe this investigation would be more compelling if it didn’t ruminate on such a tired concept — one which was en vogue in the early 2000s. “Lost in Translation” and “Match Point” come to mind.
In one of the most amusing scenes of the movie, a rabbi tells Larry an exceedingly long yet oddly compelling story about a Jewish dentist who discovered a secret message carved into the teeth of “a goy.” But after all the time spent telling the story, it fails to come to any relevant conclusion. Larry asks, exasperatedly, “Why are you telling me this story!?” Someone should ask the Coen Brothers the same question.