A Serious Man Review: A Brilliant and Reflectively Humorous Depiction of Suffering

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The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, have been making films over 25 years that always border the thin line between tragedy and comedy and it’s parallel assessment with our lives in a very unique and always visually accessible fashion. From the existential foreboding in No Country for Old Men to the senselessly violent and confusing world created in Fargo, the Coen Brothers sure know how to make a cynical yet thought provoking cinematic expression. In their latest and most personal piece, A Serious Man, the filmmaking brothers have provided a harsh but appropriate contemplation on a mixture of serious considerations ranging from the meaning of suffering to how cruel the world just might be. This cynical yet reflecting piece is both haunting as it is humorous and while those seem paradoxical the Coen Brothers have paced and structured their film in a flawless presentation to truly represent how reality is most absolutely cruel and to deal with it best is to just laugh. In every technical and creative aspect, A Serious Man truly brings out the strengths of this filmmaking duo giving the audience a cinematic piece that is truly engaging and also reflectively complex.

This incredibly Jewish tale of an average mid-western suburbanite family man Lawrence Gopnik, portrayed in an authentically exquisite fashion by Tony-award winner Michael Stulbarg, is appropriately devoted to the Jewish tale of Job and its contemplation on the meaning of suffering applied in the year 1967. While the ideal was presented for Job to put total faith in God, our protagonist Lawrence has a difficult time to accept the leap of faith as the only answer and you can hardly blame him. Lawrence has a heap of personal problems starting with his wife casually requesting a ceremonial divorce out of the blue so she can marry the disproportionately fat and incredibly pompous acquaintance Sy Abelman. From there it only gets worse from a Korean student bribing Lawrence for a better grade, dealing with his subtly implied anti-Semitic neighbor, having anonymous letters sent to the school board requesting he doesn’t receive tenure, to having his brother live at home who sits around most of the day draining a cyst in the bathroom. Lawrence has no where to turn to in order to deal with all his troubles since his brother has worse problems than he does and his kids are too self-involved, either planning a nose job or smoking marijuana and listening to Jefferson Airplane, to even care. So where does the average Jewish, sensible and serious man turn to in order to find answers to his problems? Well the Rabbi’s of course who only seem to confuse and complicate the situation more with their vague and uncertain answers. But that is mostly the brilliance behind the Coen Brothers story, the uncertainty and the randomness of suffering is not intertwined with fate but rather it is a natural and almost necessary aspect of our lives and to ask the question, “Why me?” speaks volumes on how this script doesn’t just relate on a Jewish level but to all who experience rough times. This relatable and cynically realistic script uses it’s genuinely normal protagonist to symbolize the common and natural plight of suffering on the human existence that doesn’t necessarily have an answer.

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Some might look at such a synopsis of a story and wonder why one would bother with such a morbid piece of suffering. But it’s the Coen Brothers incredibly artistic and delicate approach to the story that really involves the audience into this downward spiral that is uniquely comical as it is realistically depressing. This balance between comedy and tragedy is so well put together that the film moves at a sensible and enjoyable pace that doesn’t alienate nor push the audience away. Each and every one of the technical and creative aspects play a part in engaging the audience further into this tale of mid-western tragedy. From the perfectly angled and effective use of cinematography by the renowned Roger Deakins to the subtle and appropriate editing techniques from the Coen Brothers themselves (under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) the film falls into place as a remarkable black comedy unlike any other. Setting the film in Minneapolis is reminiscent of the Coen Brothers upbringing making this an obviously personal project that puts a magnifying lens on the filmmaker’s early lives. Playing around with subjective perceptions, dreams vs. reality, and the otherwise baffling consequences and scenarios that test each of our lives, there is no doubt that the Coen Brothers have mastered the art of filmmaking manipulation in order to accentuate their story and message.

The Coen Brothers are usually associated with a cast of familiar faces that they are usually comfortable using for their more obscure and challenging subject matter. However, this time around they have a cast of unfamiliar faces that are able to successfully portray the simplistic mid-western setting and make the absurd scenarios believable. The entire cast is successful in their portrayals of their unique characters with some notable performances from Richard Kind, Lawrence’s pathetically vulnerable and sickly brother, and Fred Melamed as the unnaturally polite and patronizingly pompous Sy Ableman. Without this cast the entire framework of the script wouldn’t have been so palpably relevant and the foreboding message in the final shot of the film wouldn’t hit you as hard as it inevitably does. This film as a comedic tragedy is not unfamiliar to the Coen world for it ranges from even their earlier works such as the dark and ominous Barton Fink to the existential critique on the lack of meaning in life from The Big Lebowski. A Serious Man is another contribution to the success of the Coen Brothers legacy as modern filmmakers but has a much more reflective nature to it more on the lines of No Country for Old Men, combining the best of both of their creative worlds.

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There is no doubt that the Coen Brothers can make an engaging cinematic experience and A Serious Man is one of their best and artistically viable examples of their strengths as visual storytellers. Dealing with complex moral and philosophical questions relating to life, religion, and suffering, the film uses its simpleton protagonist to reflect on these questions in a humorous but hauntingly cynical way. While life can be tragic there is humor to be found in even the most horrible of circumstances and even though you think something is bad the tendency is that it might just get worse. The film is also a critique on the quest for answers as to why bad things happen to good people. “I’ve tried to be a serious man,” recalls Lawrence Gopnik throughout the film and perhaps his cry against unfairness is much like our own at many points in our lives. This is what essentially makes A Serious Man more relatable than any film as of yet this year and stands to be a truly great piece as time grants it more reflection.

Grade: A

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