I don’t say this often, but I was wrong. “A Serious Man,” while intriguing because of its overwhelming Jewiness and at times entertaining, was seriously disappointing. After six months of waiting—law school is a jealous mistress—I finally got around to watching the Coen brothers film with my wife this weekend. And all I can say is ... meh.
Here’s how The New Yorker’s David Denby summarized:
The movie is a deadpan farce with a schlemiel Job as a hero—Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physicist at a local university, whose life, in 1967, is falling apart. Gopnik’s wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a sanctimonious bastard (Fred Melamed) who covers his aggressions against Larry with limp-pawed caresses and offers of “understanding.” Larry’s kids are thieving brats, and his hapless, sick, whining brother (Richard Kind) camps on the living-room couch and refuses to look for work. There’s more, much more, a series of mishaps, sordid betrayals, and weird coincidences, but Larry, a sweet guy and “a serious man”—upright, a good teacher, a father—won’t hit back. Occasionally, his eyebrows fluttering like street signs in a hurricane, he stands up for himself, but he won’t take a shot at anyone, or try to control anyone, verbally or any other way. He won’t even sleep with the dragon-eyed but sexy and highly available woman next door who sunbathes naked.
The Coens begin mysteriously, with what feels like a Yiddish folktale. Long ago, in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe, an elderly man, supposedly dead, wanders into the house of a married couple. The wife is sure that he’s a dybbuk—a spirit possessing a human’s body—and she sticks a knife in his chest. The troubles surrounding Larry Gopnik in suburban Minnesota many generations later can only be seen as the revenge of “Hashem”—the word that Conservative Jews in this Midwestern community use to name God. (If that Old Country dybbuk was not God himself, he must have been in God’s employ.) One model for the tale is obvious: acting on his wager with Satan, God drives Job to despair. Yet Job, risking his life, questions his tormentor, and Larry does not. The Coens created him that way; they explicitly celebrate “simplicity” and resignation. But a schlep and a weeper is a hero impossible to stay interested in.
Read the rest of Denby’s review here. To be sure, that opening scene, which featured Fyvush Finkel (it doesn’t get much more Yiddish), felt more like a separate short film than a part of “A Serious Man.”