A Serious Man (15)

Their heart isn't in it

Is it possible to admire a body of work for its smartness, deadpan humour, irreverence, visual bravura, and yet feel thoroughly alienated and even dismayed by it at the same time?

In the case of the Coen Brothers' movies, I'm afraid that's a regretful yes. A Serious Man, their latest, is being touted as their most "personal" film, and its vision of a suburban Jewish community in Minnesota in 1967 has moments of laugh-out-loud verbal quirkiness to rank with the best they're capable of. But it also falls in line with the Coen shortcomings: a narrow emotional range, a patchiness of construction and a contemptuous refusal to seek meaning or revelation in anything. Comedy, even tragicomedy, should not feel like such hard work.

It plays out the story of a modern Job. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor in a quiet Midwestern university whose life has started to unravel before his eyes. His maladjusted brother is sleeping on the couch, hogging the bathroom and getting into trouble with the police. His son Danny (Aaron Wolf) is about to be bar mitzvahed but has dope on the brain, Jefferson Airplane on his transistor and "F-Troop" on the telly. His daughter (Jessica McManus) is stealing money from his wallet to save up for a nose job. Worst of all, his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has fallen in love with a local widower, the maddeningly sanctimonious Sy Ableman, and wants Larry to move out of the family home.

Enough already, you may think, but the story keeps burdening its protagonist with woes. His next-door neighbour is a redneck hunter who plainly dislikes him. A decision on Larry's tenure is being undermined by an anonymous letter campaign, and a Korean student is trying to blackmail his way to better grades. As you wonder what the point of this victimisation might be, the unfortunate Larry goes to seek guidance from three different rabbis. Why has the "Hashem" – the divinity – got it in for him? Good question, but don't expect a serious answer. One of the rabbis tells an elaborate moral tale about "the goy's teeth", which turns out to have neither a moral nor a point. "We can't know everything," the rabbi shrugs. "Yeah, but you don't seem to know anything," Larry replies, not unreasonably. It's good comedy, as is the confusion over "the get" – a formal Jewish divorce – which becomes a running joke in the same way that the hula hoop ("You know, for kids") did in The Hudsucker Proxy.

They've got funny bones, these Coens, and it's heartening at least that their pictures really don't look or sound like anybody else's. But the laughter they induce isn't joyous, or cathartic, or instructive; it's mirthless, because the farcical situations they conjure are also essentially realistic, characterised by boredom, exasperation and anxiety. Even when Larry breaks out of his repressive shell and shares a joint with his foxy neighbour who sunbathes in the nude, there's no liberating sense of fun, because the Coens have decided that Larry is trapped – trapped emotionally, yet also trapped in the self-consciously formal style of their film-making, a matter of long silences, forlorn stares and abrupt close-ups (they seem to have a thing about ears in this film). It's a tribute to Michael Stuhlbarg's performance that we can bear to be in his company for so long without yielding to an urge to scream.

A Serious Man may be a "personal" film, but nothing in it suggests the Coens' affection for the era they grew up in, or a nostalgia for the faith they may have lost. The philosophical terminus is no different from any of their other movies: human existence is futile, and questioning your luck is meaningless. "I feel like the carpet's been yanked from under me," says poor Larry, whose fate looks sadly sealed. But it's not the indifferent universe to blame – it's his two indifferent creators.

Watch the trailer and clips from the film in the embedded videos

Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower