A Serious Man: A Very Jewish Film For The Coens

Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man. Courtesy of Focus Features.

Drawing upon the biblical Book of Job, A Serious Man is easily the most Jewish film that writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen could make.

The Coen Brothers were two years removed from taking home a trio of Oscars for No Country for Old Men.  The pair would follow it up with some lighter fare, Burn After Reading.  Okay, so the latter film didn’t quite hit in the same way so it was back to the drawing board so to speak.  The result: an astounding film about a Jewish man whose life falls apart in front of his own eyes.

Anyway, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor seeking tenure.  His tenure is put at risk because a student is blackmailing him for a higher grade.  If Larry’s professional life isn’t bad enough, his home life is certainly heading to rock bottom.  Judith (Sari Lennick) seeks a get from Larry because she is in love with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed).  Arthur (Richard Kind), Larry’s brother, ends up moving into the hotel room.  If this isn’t enough, son Danny (Aaron Wolff) would probably rather be high than study for his Bar Mitzvah while daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) would like to get a nose job.  This certainly is not the life that Larry could have ever imagined.

“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  Rashi’s words only set the tone for what we’re about to see.  Opening the film in a 19th century Polish shtetl is genius.  To top it off, the dialogue is nothing but Yiddish.  Honestly, the scene has nothing to do with the rest of the film but this doesn’t matter because it’s such a treat!  Anyway, Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” gives the film an assist during the time jump to 1967.  Minnesota could probably be as good of a guess as any.  This would obviously make sense because the Coens grew up there.  Being one of the greatest cinematographers to ever live, Roger Deakins makes it look so beautiful.

More often than not, Jewish culture on screen is depicted by way of New York.  There is something refreshing about seeing Judaism through the eyes of another community.  The Coens are from Minnesota so giving the film a Minnesota setting makes perfect sense.  Moreover, all the synagogue scenes are completely authentic.  I would not have it any other way!

The Coen Brothers are brilliant writers.  To say that this film is no different would not be an understatement.  The script would get an Oscar nomination.  Anyway, there’s something fun in watching Larry Gopnik go into survival mode while taking hit after hit.  Well, fun probably might not be the best word.  We should not get too excited by one being so miserable.  Again, the duo are drawing upon the Book of Job.  Appropriately, there is a deeper meaning between the lines.  And yet, we can’t help ourselves but continue watching even as the rabbi is too busy to see him!

A Serious Man remains one of the best films from 2009.

CAST:  Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Simon Helberg, Amy Landecker, Fyvush Finkel, George Wyner

Focus Features opened A Serious Man in theaters on October 2, 2009. The film is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital. Grade: 5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.