Tuesday, October 27, 2009

London Film Fest Day 14 - A SERIOUS MAN

A SERIOUS MAN is being marketed as the new black comedy from the Coen Brothers. But I found this movie absolutely excruciating to watch. Not because it's badly made. It would be hard to find a movie that has better production values, better lead performances, a more tightly written script or a more brilliant visual style. No, I found this film tough going because it essentially take a nice man, Larry Gopnik, and hurls abuse at him for two hours. I could see, in the abstract, that a lot of the dialogue and situations made for good black comedy. And I could hear the rest of the audience laughing. But I was just so over-powered with such a bleak vision of humanity that I couldn't laugh. In fact, I could barely sit through it. This is, without doubt, one of the most depressing, most depressed, and most sadistic film I have seen.

The story is simple. You take a nice middle-aged, middle-class guy living in a suburb in the 1960s. He has a wife and two kids and he's going for tenure at his university. And then, for two hours, you make his life crumble. His wife leaves him for a guy who is smug and patronising. His kids treat him as a cash-register/TV fixer. His students try to bribe him for better grades. Someone is writing slanderous letters to his tenure committee. His neighbours are taking over his garden. But Larry is a good Jewish man, and he wants to be a serious man, who takes these issues in a thoughtful calm manner. So he turns to Rabbis, and they just give him crappy advice - meaningless stories that give no hope or insight. It's even worse: he takes comfort in his son completing his Bar Mitzvah successfully but in reality it's a sham - his son was stoned. And in the final scenes, my interpretation is that the ending is incredibly bleak - we are all basically insignificant and buffeted by the elements/God.

So, I can see how some will laugh at these situations. The writing is funny, in theory. Fred Melamed, in particular, is genius as the oleaginous lover, Sy Abelman. David Kang is also funny as the Korean student Clive. But I found this movie really depressing. I took the message that life is basically cruel; humanity is dumb and selfish; and that the stories in the film and by extension, radically, the story that is the film, are ultimately pointless.

A SERIOUS MAN played Toronto 2009 and is currently on release in the USA, Denmark and Norway. It opens on November 6th in Italy and on November 20th in Australia, Iceland, Sweden and the UK. It opens in Russia on November 26th. It opens in Argentina and Finland on December 3rd. It opens on January 20th in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands.


  1. What I want to know is the meaning of the story at the start! Totally baffled me! I liked the film though, despite the bleakness :-)

  2. I think that the message of this film is that people who look for meaning in life are going to be left wanting. Gropnik looks for meaning from various rabbis and is never satisfied. I think the Coens are trying to say the same thing to us. It's very bleak and existential. Shit happens. Don't ask why - just accept it. To that end, it's a bit like Das Weisse Band. It's a movie that basically subverts the idea of a movie having a neat beginning, middle, and end with a nice meaning.