movie film review | chris tookey

Serious Man

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  Serious Man Review
Tookey's Rating
4 /10
Average Rating
8.15 /10
Michael Stuhlbarg , Richard Kind, Fred Melamed
Full Cast >

Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Released: 2009
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 105

An ultra-sadistic comedy.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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The Coen brothers return to their Jewish, midwestern roots in their latest, and cruellest, comedy, A Serious Man. Their fourteenth film is essentially a comically deadpan update of the Old Testament Book of Job. It’s1967, and Larry (Michael Stulbarg, pictured) a meek Physics professor at a Midwestern university finds to his horror that his life is collapsing.

As in the Coens’ Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, this is a tale of cosmic injustice, but this time it’s God – or fate, if you don’t believe in God – holding the cattle stungun.

Poor old Larry could be massaged from head to foot in equine placenta, and it still wouldn’t solve his problems.

His wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for an unctuous hypocrite (Fred Melamed, the funniest thing in this). Larry’s ne’er-do-well brother Arthur (Richard Kind) snores on Larry’s couch and spends an inordinately long time in the bathroom, draining an unsightly neck cyst.

Larry’s children are alarmingly self-centred. His son (Aaron Wolff) is shirking his Hebrew studies, smoking pot and pestering his dad about poor TV reception. His daughter (Jessica McManus) spends most of the movie trying to get into the bathroom or stealing from dad’s wallet to finance a nose job.

Larry’s up for tenure at his college, but poison-pen letters may be sabotaging his chances. A bill-collector is threatening him over debts he didn’t know he had. A Korean student is trying to bribe him for a passing grade, and when accused of bribery threatens to sue Larry for defamation.

Then there are the neighbours: a Jewish temptress who sunbathes in the nude, and an anti-semitic gun-nut who is deliberately encroaching on Larry’s property.

Banished by his family to a seedy motel called The Jolly Roger, Larry seeks legal advice from two lawyers, and spiritual counsel from three rabbis. He wants to know if God is out to punish him - and if so, why?

The Coens’ film is so cynical and nihilistic that it consistently offers us parables which don’t deliver any answers and leave Larry, and us, more and more confused. The nearest thing to a moral seems to be: life is incomprehensible and unfair, so get over it.

As the Gods of their own particular screenplay, the Coen brothers enjoy thinking up new ways to punish the hapless Larry, and these will be enough to amuse some people.

There’s also plenty to admire in Roger Deakins’ camerawork, Carter Burwell’s score, and the Coens’ editing, under their longterm pseudonym Roderick Jaynes.

But the lack of humanity towards the characters makes this a bleak and charmless experience. We are left too detached to care much what happens to anyone, not even Larry.

To less critical fans of the Coens, A Serious Man will appear bracingly unsentimental. To me, and I suspect the mass of the cinema-going public, it feels nasty and pointlessly vindictive. There’s a hole in the middle of this movie, where a modicum of empathy and humanity ought to be.

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