The Coen Brothers have clearly established themselves as outstanding directors, maybe the best directing duo of all time. They have so many great movies on their resume and have the awards and accolades to solidify their place in cinematic history. However, the Coen Brothers also have a tendency to make pointless films that go nowhere and sometimes they forget about character arcs completely. BURN AFTER READING is a good example of this as is their latest fare, A SERIOUS MAN. When the Coens succeed, they really succeed, but it works the other way, too.
Michael Stuhlbarg is Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor living in the 1960’s that’s going through a horrible, horrible time in his life. His wife is leaving him, a student is blackmailing him, his brother is in trouble with the law, his neighbor is crossing into his property and he can’t find the answers to his problems in his religion. Larry is a beaten man and rather than facing the hardships, he continues to let people walk all over him while relying on his rabbis to direct him and lead him in a specific direction.
The Jewish faith plays a huge role in the film and I’ll freely admit that my lack of knowledge regarding the inner-workings of Judaism may have hindered my ability to appreciate the film. What I witnessed was a man getting slapped down by everyone in his life and not doing anything about it. We’ve seen characters like this before, but usually they have a reconciliation or growth that we witness so all of their hardships have some sort of meaning. Larry had no such arc and even as the movie came to a close, he was continuing to get beat down. It’s tough for an audience to connect with a character that remains the same throughout the film, despite opportunities for growth.
Then we have the issue of the Coens adding too much into the story that served no purpose. The most obvious scene (and the one that might have required an expertise of Judaism) is the opening sequence, which takes place in the 1800’s. This opening scene is presumably an inside joke; Larry’s ancestors invited a dybbuk (evil spirit) into the house, and that’s why Larry is facing so many hardships. This scene felt meaningless since I believed that Larry’s problems were more a cause of his own doing rather than some ancient curse. There’s also a secondary story with Larry’s son, Danny (Aaron Wolff) who is trying to repay $20 he owes to the school bully. That was never explored or wrapped up and every scene with the son was basically a waste of screen time.
So take the wasted scenes, lack of character arcs and couple that with the fact that none of the characters were likable and you have a film that was really hard to get through. Yes, the Coens did a wonderful job directing and yes, the film was extremely well made. But excelling on the technical aspects of filmmaking is just one part of making an enjoyable film. Without a story, redeemable characters or significant events, A SERIOUS MAN turned out to be a nice film to look at, but a hard film to watch.